President Donald Trump’s impeachment is over. Investigations in the House, and a trial in the Senate, demonstrated with nauseating clarity that he used his presidential powers to try to bully Ukraine into smearing Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden. Like President Richard Nixon, Trump abused his presidential powers to advance his own partisan political campaign.
But the Republican-led Senate not only refused to remove Trump from office, it also refused to call witnesses, subpoena documents, or in any real way hold a trial. Trump’s legal team asserted that presidents essentially should not be held accountable when they try to use the machinery of government to ensure their own re-election. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Trump was guilty of trying to bully foreign powers for his own gain, but that removing him would “inflict extraordinary trauma” on the nation — as if a lawless president does no damage.
The Republican-led Senate not only refused to remove Trump from office, it also refused to call witnesses, subpoena documents, or in any real way hold a trial.
The failure of the impeachment process was predictable. No serious commentator or political actor thought the Senate was going to remove Trump from office. But now that it’s over, there’s only one way to hold Trump accountable: The 2020 election, in other words, the very same election which Trump abused the power of his office to try to manipulate and the reason the president was impeached in the first place.
Get the think newsletter.
Focusing on the vote in November can feel like a catch-22. Trump has shown himself willing to go to extraordinary lengths to undermine free and fair elections. He withheld military aid from Ukraine, removed the U.S. ambassador when she tried to interfere with his plans, and publicly solicited foreign election interference from Ukraine and China on national television. More, we know that Trump solicited election interference from Russia in 2016, and that there’s good reason to believe that interference helped him. If Trump is going to use the considerable powers of his office to cheat, can we really hope to remove him in 2020?
There’s certainly plenty of reason for pessimism and despair. Republicans, after all, have been trying to compromise elections for some time. GOP operatives have all but admitted (and sometimes openly admitted) to using voter identification laws to try to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Republicans have similarly used gerrymanders to try to prevent black voters from being fairly represented in state Legislatures.
This assault on democracy has been fruitful for Republicans; voter suppression in 2016 probably won Wisconsin for Trump. Trump’s effort to influence the 2020 outcome is different in method, but not that different in kind, from past GOP attacks on election integrity. Which, perhaps, is why the GOP has not been willing to censure him.
But there’s still reason for hope. After all, we have had many elections since 2016, and they have not overall gone well for Republicans. In December 2017, Doug Jones won a stunning Senate contest in red Alabama. Virginia landslides in 2017 and 2019 gave Democrats control of the state for the first time in decades, allowing the legislature to expand Medicare to cover 375,000 low-income residents and to roll back abortion restrictions. Democrat Andy Beshear won the Kentucky governor’s race in 2019, putting a stop to Republican efforts to institute work rules for Medicaid.
And of course, in 2018, Democrats retook the House of Representatives. In doing so, they put an end to Republican efforts to gut Obama’s health care reforms through legislation. They also made it possible to pursue impeachment when evidence of Trump’s actions in Ukraine came to light.
And impeachment has still been valuable, even if it has not led to Trump’s removal. It has forced vulnerable Republican senators such as Susan Collins of Maine, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Cory Gardner of Colorado to tie themselves more closely to an unpopular president. (It has also taken pressure off Ukraine to interfere in the election, as Trump had requested.)
Trump will no doubt continue to try to smear former Vice President Joe Biden, or whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination. But at least, post-impeachment, with his thuggish methods revealed, and many of his henchmen facing investigation and potential prosecution, Trump’s efforts will be hampered.
It’s worth remembering that Trump presumably abused his power because he is frightened. He has seen his party get crushed in elections year after year; he knows his approval ratings are not great. He is afraid to face the electorate in a fair contest.
That doesn’t mean his defeat is assured. But in 2017, 2018 and 2019, GOP efforts at election manipulation were not enough to overcome widespread Democratic outrage, engagement and organizing. Impeachment demonstrated a lot of things about this White House, but what it was always about was the presidential election. American democracy is flawed and wounded, but it has still been a check on Trump. In 2020, it can be again.