Look, he warned you. Way back at the dawn of his political adventure, Donald Trump opined that his supporters would stay with him forever, even if he pulled out a gun and shot somebody in the middle of a Manhattan avenue.
That proposition has fortunately never been tested.
Yet his second impeachment and 57-43 acquittal vote have managed to unearth thorny truths about American politics and his indelible place in it.
One obvious takeaway from this unusual episode is that the U.S. Constitution’s impeachment provisions have revealed themselves to be a dull-toothed tiger.
This has potentially long-lasting implications: Trump could run for office again, and the country’s constitutional guardrails have proven feeble at a time of mounting threats to democracy.
The Senate’s most powerful figure, Democrat Chuck Schumer, called it a vote that will live in infamy and expressed his fear of this acquittal setting a precedent with bleak implications for the republic.
“If encouraging political violence becomes the norm, it will be open season — open season — on our democracy,” Schumer, the Senate’s majority leader, said.
“Everything will be up for grabs by whoever has the biggest clubs; the sharpest spears; the most powerful guns.”
His Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, spent minutes on the Senate floor also ripping into Trump, saying the former president could yet face criminal and civil threats and that he hadn’t gotten away with anything.
McConnell voted to acquit Trump, however, which he described as a technical matter of agreeing with scholars who argue you can’t convict a former official.
Forty-three of the 50 Senate Republicans opposed conviction. Which, strikingly, is weak by historical standards: The seven Republicans voting to convict a president of their own party actually set a new record.
And that speaks volumes about how impeachment has worked.
Political parties didn’t exist back when the framers, in their powdered wigs, gathered in downtown Philadelphia to put impeachment rules to paper in 1787 — let alone today’s entrenched party solidarity, which renders the idea of achieving a Senate conviction as remote to our generation as a presidential tweetstorm would have seemed to James Madison’s.
Trump has now single-handedly created a fuller sample size to measure what happens when an impeachment case reaches the Senate, by doubling the number of presidential impeachments in U.S. history from two to four.
The answer is: probably nothing.
Attaining that 67-vote threshold to convict is hard when the person on trial is the de facto leader of one party in the chamber; it’s even harder when Congress is deeply unpopular, and senators are being asked to turf a leader their supporters prefer to them.
Most Republicans made clear they wanted to avoid the trial, and the few who’d backed impeachment faced the wrath of Trump supporters in their home states.
It was all pretty predictable.
They sat through days of testimony where Democrats accused the ex-president of the most serious crime ever committed against the republic by an American commander-in-chief: turning a mob against the state.
Was there a point to all of this?
Republicans watched presentations accusing Trump of whipping up this mob with years of violence-threatening rhetoric; of fomenting its anger with weeks of delusional attacks on the election result; and of timing it all to crash into the Capitol on Jan. 6, when he organized a rally just as lawmakers met to certify the election of Joe Biden as president.
Trump’s lawyers countered that, yes, he urged supporters to march on the Capitol — but, they noted, Trump told them to stay peaceful, and when he urged them to “fight like hell,” they said, he was using a term commonly employed by all politicians.
If the result was so utterly predictable, then that in itself raises an important question. Was this pointless?
It’s far too soon to conclude that this process left Trump unblemished — or for that matter that he leads a consequence-free political existence.
Accountability mechanisms still exist in American politics, even if dented and hammered beyond the shape originally fashioned by the founders.
There are at least four potential consequences for Trump’s past actions.
The impeachment itself, for starters, might have failed to deliver Trump a short-term sting but will carry a long-term stink.
For as long as there’s an American republic, schoolchildren will ask about that president who got impeached twice.
Joseph Ellis, a presidential historian who participates in academic surveys ranking presidents, has said the likelihood of Trump being ranked dead last went up with his record-setting second impeachment.
The impeachment also allows voters, both in the Republican primaries and in the general election in 2024, to evaluate how candidates handled this moment. Did they back Trump strongly or meekly? Did they oppose him? Did they duck the debate?
Next: ‘Serious’ criminal investigations
A second source of potential trouble ahead for Trump: the legal system. Prosecutors in several jurisdictions have publicly revealed they’ve opened criminal investigations related to him.
When asked about the likely outcome, two former prosecutors told CBC News they wouldn’t be surprised to see charges against Trump.
In fact, said Ben Gershman, who specialized in corruption cases at the Manhattan district level and state level in New York and now teaches law at Pace University: “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t charged.”
He said that’s based on what’s already in the public domain. It includes tax and insurance fraud investigations reportedly underway at the city and state level in New York; state authorities saying they’re looking at a property deal in Westchester County; prosecutors in Georgia launching a criminal investigation into the ex-president’s attempt to pressure state officials to overturn the 2020 election result; Trump being an unindicted co-conspirator in the campaign finance-fraud case involving Stormy Daniels (though that case is reportedly dormant); accusations of mortgage fraud; and several incidents of potential obstruction of justice described in the Mueller report.
Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, described Trump’s legal exposure as: “Extremely serious. On the tax, the mortgage fraud [laws] and the matter in Georgia, where he’s on tape.”
The ultimate punishment
A third potential source of scrutiny involves investigations into what happened on Jan. 6. There have already been different processes launched in Congress, and there will be others, probing the attack and how the Trump administration responded.
Finally, there’s the punishment Trump has already started suffering: The sting of electoral rejection.
That metaphor Trump used about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue was never completely accurate. It’s broadly, but not totally, true that his voters are an unbreakable block.
After four years of Trump’s presidency, a tiny percentage soured on him, in small-but-sufficient numbers to cost him some states.
That much-vaunted unflappability of his base cannot obscure the fact that not once — not for a moment in Trump’s presidency — did he build on that base to achieve approval numbers anywhere close to the ones currently enjoyed by Biden. Several surveys showed majority or plurality support for impeaching Trump.
Now settled into his post-presidency in his seaside home at Mar-a-Lago, Trump will keep arguing that he was robbed in the election.
He has insisted, and will keep insisting forever, that he was a victim of the courts, the Democrats, weak-kneed Republican officials and voting machines in a supposed conspiracy that cost him numerous swing states, and he’ll correctly point to the near-record total of 74 million votes he received.
But it won’t change a thing about Trump’s status: defeated president.
Nothing he does will erase the other verdict rendered in a larger political court, by a record-smashing number of voters — 81,268,924 people who did what Republican senators never would to Donald John Trump.