Well, that’s over. Except in a way it’s not.
America’s 45th president may have been acquitted by the Senate, but the trial of Donald Trump – if not on Capitol Hill, then perhaps in the judiciary and surely in the courtroom of history – will not soon end.
In no longer standing accused but in walking away acquitted, Mr. Trump has won a tentative but formidable victory, permitting him to claim vindication in not being convicted of inciting the insurrection at the Capitol last month.
But though he lives in the sunshine of Palm Beach, Mr. Trump nonetheless likely will be consigned to the dark shadows of history’s verdict. And though he avoided the most shameful chastisement in American politics, he still casts a lengthy shadow on the country’s civic life.
He remains the only president to be impeached twice – an ignominy without equal, for he alone accounts for half the impeachments in American history – and still is vulnerable to several legal actions and perhaps even to further congressional efforts to censure him or to undertake long-shot efforts to ban him from returning to the presidency.
And yet he retains the support of a majority of the Republican Party, has an army of the dispossessed and the discouraged at the ready, possesses perhaps as much as several hundred million dollars in political funds at his disposal, and remains Velcro for attention – even in Mar-a-Lago exile.
The route to the former president’s acquittal – tortuous and tortured – matched his four years in the White House. It was marked by broken expectations and fractured customs, high drama and high passions, stunning developments and unprecedented pressures against democratic institutions, much of it unfolding in the very Senate chamber that, in a little more than five weeks’ time, was transformed first into a crime scene and then into a political courtroom.
True to the tumult of the era that Mr. Trump dominated and then defined, the apparent smooth glide path to Saturday’s vote was disrupted by the surprise emergence of a fresh, shocking development.
It came in the form of evidence that suggested Mr. Trump was pleased by the rampaging mob inside the Capitol last month that threw the Senate into upheaval, and that threatened to delay the resolution of the trial for days, perhaps weeks. Eventually Senate leaders agreed to put into the record a statement from GOP Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington State, who related an account that she said House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California shared with her about his conversation with Mr. Trump during the rampage. “Well, Kevin,” the president said, according to this account, “I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
Following several hours of awkward manoeuvering, the Senate decided to proceed to closing arguments. But – as the impeachments of Bill Clinton (1998) and Andrew Johnson (1868) demonstrate – Senate acquittal does not close the arguments by historians and commentators.
“The fact that this is a second impeachment is enormously significant,” Brenda Wineapple, the author of the authoritative account of the Johnson impeachment amid the passions of the post-Civil War era, said in an interview. “It sets this effort apart, because the violation that is the reason for this impeachment is truly stunning. Even during and after the Civil War nothing like the riot against the Capitol happened.”
At the centre of the historical debate around Mr. Trump will be whether Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead trial prosecutor, was right when he argued that Mr. Trump bore responsibility for a riot by violent extremists that he said “easily could have destroyed the peaceful transfer of power in the United States for the first time in 233 years.”
The Senate trial is over, but more trials – in federal court as well as in New York State – loom for Mr. Trump.
Moments after the former president was acquitted, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell – who voted to acquit the president but nonetheless said Mr. Trump was guilty of a “disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty” – warned his former ally that the lawyers were coming after him.
“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen unless the statute of limitations is run,” he said. “We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.”
Almost exactly 70 years ago, the figure Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered “the most dangerous man in America” gave an unforgettable speech only yards from where the Senate acquitted Mr. Trump. In those 1951 remarks, General Douglas MacArthur quoted a famous barracks ballad proclaiming that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
Mr. Trump, the only person who ascended to the presidency without experience in politics or the military, will not soon fade away. With a party he remade in his image and with a political base available for mobilization, Mr. Trump’s acquittal is but a punctuation mark in a story that has no discernible end.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1858. It was 1868.
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