This Impeachment Is Different

In 2019, Democrats voted to make a statement. In 2021, it could actually work.

Nancy Pelosi
Stefani Reynolds / Getty

Maybe the second time’s the charm.

This afternoon, Donald Trump, the third president in American history to be impeached, became the first to be impeached twice. The House of Representatives voted 232–197 to impeach Trump for inciting the attempted coup on January 6 and for trying to overturn Joe Biden’s election as president. The matter now goes to the Senate, where a trial is unlikely before Biden’s January 20 inauguration. No president has ever been convicted and removed.

Almost exactly a year ago, the nation found itself in a position that was very similar and yet completely different. The Democratic-led House had impeached Trump, but the final result was a foregone conclusion: The Senate, led by Republicans, would quickly bury it and acquit the president. The votes would come almost entirely along party lines. Trump would remain president.

No matter what happens now, Trump will leave the presidency by January 20. But the circumstances of his departure and his future in politics are up in the air, because we don’t yet know what will happen in the Senate. It is not clear where Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stands, nor how he might manage his caucus. It is not clear if GOP senators will break with Trump. It is not clear when a Senate trial will begin. It’s not clear who will defend Trump in a Senate trial or how the trial will run.

The cause of this uncertainty is a tectonic shift in the Republican Party—not as large as one might hope or expect, given what occurred on January 6, but still enough to shake up impeachment. Last fall, only a few members of Congress in both chambers crossed party lines. Three House Democrats voted against impeachment, and one almost immediately became a Republican. One former Republican representative voted to impeach, but he’d already had to leave the party over his criticism of President Trump. In the Senate, only Republican Senator Mitt Romney broke ranks.

Today, however, 10 House Republicans voted to impeach. Most prominently, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the caucus, has been an outspoken advocate of the move. Meanwhile, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—who took part in attempts to overturn the election on January 6—opposed impeachment, but did not whip his members’ votes, and warned Republicans not to attack colleagues who support impeachment, for fear it could put their lives in danger.

These Republican votes made the impeachment the most bipartisan in history, but they did not change the outcome. The real action will be in the Senate. Once again, the odds that Trump will be convicted seem long, but this time, Republicans are much more open to the question. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote. (If Trump were convicted, it is likely he would also be barred from holding office in the future, which would require only a majority of the Senate in a second vote.)

Yesterday evening, The New York Times reported that McConnell “has concluded that President Trump committed impeachable offenses and believes that Democrats’ move to impeach him will make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the party.” Other outlets matched that reporting; Axios says McConnell is in fact leaning toward conviction. (His wife, former Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, resigned from the administration after the attempted coup.) In a letter to colleagues today, however, McConnell said he had not made a decision about how to vote.

Parsing these reports is difficult. Such stories don’t get out without McConnell and people around him wanting them out, for whatever reason. The powerful Republican leader is sending a message, but it isn’t clear what he’s signaling, or to whom. McConnell’s support for conviction would be essential to any effort to convict. While the past month has already shown the cracks in his normally rock-solid control, the 17 Republicans needed to convict will not break ranks without his go-ahead, but his support might encourage senators who have long disliked or even loathed Trump privately to turn on him publicly.

Don’t hold your breath, though. There’s a gap the size of the Red River Gorge between McConnell world releasing trial balloons and the senator publicly stating his support for removal, much less actively encouraging colleagues to join him. But senators who turn on Trump might find themselves pushing on an open door. While Trump’s loyal supporters are furious over the second impeachment, the White House itself seems paralyzed. The president, rendered practically speechless by the suspension of his Twitter account, has said almost nothing, and there’s been no media blitz by what’s left of the rest of his administration. The Washington Post reports that the White House counsel is not preparing for impeachment, and that the president’s legislative-affairs team is not contacting lawmakers.

This leaves the president effectively defenseless. If a trial occurs after Inauguration Day, it isn’t clear who would defend Trump. He has reportedly considered hiring Rudy Giuliani, whose efforts on Trump’s behalf have so far been disastrous—he helped precipitate the first impeachment—and who participated in the same rally that incited the riot, calling for “trial by combat.”

The reasons this impeachment is so different are plain enough. First, Trump already lost his reelection campaign, which neuters his threat to Republican officeholders. Back then, they were terrified that getting crosswise with the president could doom their careers—and though this hardly represented courage, they were probably right, given how he’d torpedoed other Republican critics. To be sure, Trump has promised to campaign against GOP officials who did not back his attempt to overturn the election, but his invincibility was already punctured, and has been sapped further by last week’s disaster.

Second, the fact that the attack targeted Congress has sowed fury and resentment among members. It’s one thing to look on as Trump attacks, or encourages attacks, on others. It’s another to see insurrectionists marching through your chambers and trying to harm you.

Third, public opinion has shifted. As I wrote in December 2019, the first impeachment was far more popular than any of the political discourse might have suggested. Once again, there is strong support for impeachment, but there is also a material shift in feelings about Trump. For four years, the president’s approval rating was one of the stranger indicators in American politics. Trump was wildly unpopular—but he was also enduringly popular with a strong minority of the public, which meant that while his approval rating was always low, it had a floor. Many observers wondered what could ever break the floor. January 6 may finally have done that. Polls show bipartisan revulsion toward the president, with his approval falling to historic lows.

Whether this will be enough to attain a conviction for Trump won’t be clear for some time. As the Trump era comes to an end, it is one last parting gift of roiling uncertainty that he leaves the nation.