As expected, yesterday the Senate voted to acquit President Trump of the charges of which he was accused in the articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate rejected the first article, abuse of power, by a vote of 48 to 52, as Utah Senator Mitt Romney crossed the aisle to vote with the Democratic minority. On the second article, obstruction of Congress, the vote was 47 to 53. “The president did in fact pressure a foreign government to corrupt our election process,” Romney told reporter McKay Coppins. “And really, corrupting an election process in a democratic republic is about as abusive and egregious an act against the Constitution—and one’s oath—that I can imagine. It’s what autocrats do.”
“The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a ‘high crime and misdemeanor,’” Romney said. “Yes, he did.”
The fact that Romney voted yes on one of the articles was really the only surprising news of the day. And it was significant. It robbed Trump of a pure party-line vote, thus enabling him to argue that impeachment was a partisan “witch hunt.” Trump surrogates found a way around that problem quickly: they simply said that Romney wasn’t a Republican. Donald Trump Jr. called Romney a “pussy” and tweeted that Romney is “now officially a member of the resistance & should be expelled from the GOP.” On her show on the Fox News Channel, Laura Ingraham said Romney should resign because he “committed a fraud on the people of Utah, on the Republican Party, on the Constitution.”
The Republican Party is now the Trump Party, and there is a reason that, for all their bullying, its leaders are nervous. The 48 Senators who voted to convict Trump represent 18 million more Americans than the 52 Republicans who voted to acquit. It is increasingly obvious that a minority is gaming the system against a majority, and their only hope for retaining power is to repress that majority.
They redoubled their efforts to do that as soon as the Senate voted. Maine Senator Susan Collins tried to argue that Trump had learned his lesson and would “be much more cautious in the future.” But Trump insisted to reporters on Tuesday that there was nothing to learn because he had done nothing wrong. “It was a perfect call.” Privately, according to Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, Republican senators “agree that the president is reckless and unfit. They admit his lies. And they acknowledge what he did was wrong. They know this president has done things Richard Nixon never did. And they know that more damning evidence is likely to come out. But they are afraid to stand up to him. They have no answer for how they will stop him from getting worse in the wake of acquittal.”
It is something to which they should have given some thought.
After the vote, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, asked about Adam Schiff, who led the impeachment effort: “Will there be no retribution?” And, after former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be censured for ripping up Trump’s speech, tonight Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) announced that he is filing an ethics complaint against Pelosi. He claims she might have violated the law against mutilating a government record. “Nobody is above the law,” he tweeted. “She must be held accountable.”
Shortly after the vote, Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chair Ron Johnson (R-WI) began an investigation into Hunter Biden.
And, in retaliation for the fact that New York has refused to turn DMV records over to ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Homeland Security today suspended the ability for residents of New York to enroll or renew their status in the Global Entry or Trusted Traveler programs, something that will hobble New Yorkers who often travel internationally.
Today, Attorney General William Barr gave the Trump campaign cover for 2020. He issued an order that the FBI cannot investigate any political candidate or that candidate’s senior advisors before the 2020 election without him signing off on it. So, if Trump does receive help from a foreign country as he did in 2016 and tried to do in 2020, the FBI cannot investigate it unless Barr says it’s okay. Barr, you will remember, is deeply implicated in the Ukraine Scandal.
I read today an exchange between a historian and one of his friends, who was taking him to task for blowing Trump’s actions out of proportion and acting like the sky is falling when, he said, every administration upsets its opponents and Trump’s is no different. A second historian chimed in to note that this might be a really good time to listen to historians, since we’re the ones who study the rise of authoritarians.
So here’s my two cents. This is not normal political behavior. This is not normal partisanship. While, as you must know by now, I believe that the future always remains unwritten, and we can always change the outcome until it is, the steps Trump takes are consistent with the rise of a dictator. And now with him freed from the cloud of impeachment, we appear to be entering a new phase of escalation. It looks like he is beginning to single out his opponents for punishment, justifying it with the argument that those opponents are hurting America.
While it is not time to panic, it is definitely time to keep up pressure on your senators and representatives, to take up oxygen defending the rule of law, to demand hand marked paper ballots in the 2020 election, and to work for candidates of your choice not only for the presidency but also for the House and Senate, candidates who will defend our democracy. And if you find it all too much to face, remember that refusing to let this administration throw you off track and instead going about your day is an act of resistance. And so, in this era, is simply being kind and honest, when so many people are trading on hatred and lies.
Trump will make an announcement about his acquittal Thursday at noon.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 17 2020. Subscribe for free here.