As an episodic television special it was a dud. As a political drama it was a flop. As an implement to remove Donald Trump from office it was a debacle.
But as a marker in the ever-changing contours of American history and constitutional law it was a signal moment, and the presidency and politics will be shaped for decades by a spectacle that consumed two months of America’s time while a crisis brewed in Iran, a landmark trade pact advanced in North America and a pandemic spread beyond China.
The Senate’s acquittal of President Donald J. Trump in only the third impeachment in U.S. history shifted the balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches dramatically. It substantially undermined Congress’s ability to subpoena documents and summon witnesses. It rendered presidential impeachment, once a forbidding legal implement regarded as a constitutional last resort, a blunt political tool.
And though Mr. Trump’s historical record and reputation have been permanently besmirched, the House impeachment and Senate trial almost certainly enhanced both his immediate political prospects and his presidency – even as his public approval ratings at this point in his term are lower than those of any U.S. president since Jimmy Carter (1977-81).
This agonizing episode in the American passage transformed the separation of powers – regarded as a vital pinion of the country’s political architecture – into a balance of parties. The result is precisely the sort of 21st-century situation that the 18th-century Founding Fathers sought to avoid with a Constitution that deliberately did not mention political parties and with a set of commentaries, known as the Federalist Papers, which both sides in the impeachment debate cited but which specifically deplored the prospect of parties – or “factions,” as James Madison described them in the 10th section of the revered document.
“We saw loyalty to political parties exceed loyalty to political institutions,” said Daniel Urman, a Northeastern University constitutional scholar. “For years, dedication to congressional institutions trumped dedication to parties. This is no longer true. Today it’s parties, parties, parties.”
As a consequence, Congress, which cultivated its independence and flexed its prerogatives in the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and through its repeated use of oversight functions over many decades, has diminished its own power. “Congress’s capacity to check an out-of-control president in the future has been seriously diminished,” said Michael Birkner, a Gettysburg College historian.
This political ordeal also upended the balance of fear in U.S. politics – at least in the short term.
Traditionally, lawmakers fear voters more than the president. In the Trump era, Republican lawmakers displayed unalloyed fear of the President – fear of his withering criticism; fear of his ability to summon opprobrium with a few taps on his iPhone; and, above all, fear of his threats to set in motion primary challenges to them in their states or ridings.
Other presidents have stoked fear. Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) was fearsome in his lobbying of former colleagues in Congress, most of whom he knew well – and whose peculiar personal or political vulnerabilities he studied with cold ardour. But he operated in the television age. Mr. Trump, by contrast, hardly knows any of the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But they know his wrath and fear being humiliated in tweets more than they fear being shamed in posterity.
At the same time, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has emerged as one of the most powerful Senate majority leaders in history.
By denying President Barack Obama the right to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court in 2016 and by steering the Senate toward an acquittal of Mr. Trump, he now stands in historical influence beside Mr. Johnson, who pushed a rudimentary civil-rights measure through the Senate when the body was controlled in large measure by powerful Southern segregationists, and Henry Cabot Lodge, the Massachusetts Republican whose efforts defeated Woodrow Wilson’s effort to take the United States into the League of Nations.
Today the stigma of impeachment is greater between the cover of history books than in the public square. Andrew Johnson barely escaped conviction in the Senate in 1868 but did not escape the harsh verdict of public opinion and did not run for re-election that year. Bill Clinton survived his 1999 Senate trial and left the White House two years later with soaring approval ratings. Mr. Trump will brandish his acquittal as the verdict of the American system and will employ it as a campaign tool in this fall’s election.
The irony of the age is that those who pushed to brand Mr. Trump with an enduring symbol of disgrace may end up regretting the episode the most. In asserting their purity and proceeding with the solemn process of impeachment with determination, passion and some flashes of eloquence, they may have helped assure the protraction of the Trump era.