This Is the Cost of a Failed Impeachment

When the Senate failed to remove Trump last year, it all but guaranteed his future attempts to overturn the election.

Trump displays a newspaper reading, "Acquitted"
Oliver Contreras / Sipa / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

If your memory can reach back to the time before COVID-19—no shame if it can’t—you may recall the last big story before the pandemic struck: the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

In December 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, all stemming from a ploy in which he attempted to extort the Ukrainian government into assisting his reelection campaign. In February, the Republican-led Senate voted not to remove him from office. After that, impeachment mostly disappeared from national discourse, barely playing a role in the presidential election, even though it was a historic moment and the idea was stunningly popular, and even though it involved Trump’s attempt to scuttle the campaign of Joe Biden, who ended up as the Democratic presidential nominee. But views on Trump were already largely ossified, and besides, there was the pandemic and an economic crisis to deal with.

The memory of impeachment is back with a vengeance this week. Though Biden beat Trump, the president continues to try to overturn Biden’s victory. In a phone call on Saturday that was eerily reminiscent of Trump’s July 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump tried to pressure Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of Georgia (the state, not the country) to do something, anything, to throw the state’s results back to him.

During impeachment, Trump’s critics, including me, warned repeatedly that if he were not impeached and removed, he’d feel empowered to commit the same offenses again. Trump’s current, shambling coup attempt is the price of the Senate’s failure to remove him.

Raffensperger, who seems understandably furious over Trump’s pressure campaign against him, taped the conversation and then released it to The Washington Post after Trump lied about it on Twitter. The president’s MO has not changed since July 2019—in fact, it has scarcely changed over the course of his career. All the hallmarks of the Zelensky call popped up in the Saturday coup call. Trump alternates between wheedling flattery and domineering (though vague) threats. He suggests that Raffensperger owes him one—aren’t they on the same team? He presents a proposed miscarriage of justice as a vindication of justice. Just as he did with Zelensky, Trump runs through a litany of wild and false conspiracy theories.

Trump speaks like a mob boss, making his desire clear but never saying explicitly what he wants, so as to maintain deniability. What he says is, “So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.” What he means is, Find some way to throw out valid votes so that I can win. (Never mind that the state’s results have been certified and its electors seated; Raffensperger’s role has concluded.)

Some of the early reaction to the coup call has focused on whether Trump could be held criminally liable. “I understand that the Fulton County district attorney wants to look at it,” Raffensperger himself said on Good Morning America today. “Maybe that’s the appropriate venue for it to go.” Legal experts agree that it is deeply inappropriate, but are mixed on whether Trump could be charged with a crime.

Possible or not, that’s highly unlikely. The president seems to be careful on the call about how he speaks (legally, at least—he’s incoherent in most respects), and anyway, importuning fraud requires one to realize that what one is asking for is wrong, and Trump may very well be deluded enough to believe that he actually won Georgia. He has shown little ability to sort fact from fiction, especially when fiction favors him.

Criminal consequences were always unlikely over the Ukraine plot, too, though it was the subject of a criminal referral. The mechanism for holding a president accountable is not the criminal-justice system but Congress, through the impeachment power. The Democratic-led House dragged its feet but eventually recognized this responsibility last fall, launching an impeachment inquiry. By October 2019, Trump’s impeachment became inevitable.

But Republicans in the House and Senate opposed the effort. The most shameless and daft insisted that Trump’s extortion of Ukraine was entirely proper. The more perceptive but cowardly said the plot was wrong, but not worthy of impeachment or removal. (Only one, Senator Mitt Romney, voted to convict, on one count; he has also made some of the most vociferous denunciations of Trump’s current coup attempt.)

GOP officeholders knew that Trump was innocent—they just hadn’t figured out why. The same thing is happening again now. Republicans know that the election was somehow tainted, even though two months of fevered searches and litigation have yet to uncover any evidence to back that up. Having spent the time since the election sowing public doubt by baselessly questioning the results, demagogues like Senator Ted Cruz insist that it is important to halt the process because the public has doubts. (Most voters, it’s worth noting, don’t have concerns.)

The moral hazard of the Republican stance on the Ukraine plot was clear. If Trump got away with extorting Ukraine and trying to rig the election process in his favor, he’d take the lesson that he could continue his brazen interference in elections without consequence. The only remaining check on him would be the voters—and he was looking for ways to juke them, too. Reaching this conclusion didn’t require clairvoyance, because Trump was open about it even amid impeachment. As he stood accused of privately pressuring Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, he publicly asked China to do so. He continued his pressure play on Ukraine, too, though it never came to anything.

Trump quickly proved me right. He began pushing out officials who had testified in the impeachment inquiry. In May, he tried to extort election-procedure changes from Democratic-led states. The post-election moves, and especially the coup call, are the most brazen and direct echo of the Ukraine plot, and they show why acquittal was so dangerous to the republic.

Trump is probably not going to “get away” with the coup attempt, insofar as it is highly unlikely that he can do anything to prevent Biden from becoming president on January 20. But he will get away with it insofar as he probably won’t face any criminal consequences for his attempted power grab. The corrosive effects on democracy of what Trump is doing right now will continue for years or decades. Future politicians will take the lesson to heart and use the same tactics to try to overturn elections. Meanwhile, the false claims that Trump and his Republican enablers have spread will do lasting damage to faith in elections, which could harm the United States.

All of this could have been prevented.