Four takeaways from Donald Trump's impeachment

US President Donald Trump's approval rating stands at an average of 43.3 per cent on FiveThirtyEight's database of polls, which is the highest it has been since March 2017.
US President Donald Trump's approval rating stands at an average of 43.3 per cent on FiveThirtyEight's database of polls, which is the highest it has been since March 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Mr Donald Trump just became the third president in United States history to be impeached, with the House voting on Wednesday (Dec 18) to approve two articles of impeachment against him.

Below are some key takeaways from the vote, from the process that preceded it to what happens next.

1. PARTISANSHIP REIGNS

As an expression of the tribalism and polarisation that has taken hold in Washington, it's tough to do better than this: The House took something with almost no ideological component and has come down almost completely along partisan lines.

In fact, impeachment was so partisan that there were as many members who switched party over impeachment - two - as there were other crossover votes.

Those party-switchers were Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who went from Republican to independent, and Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who is moving from Democrat to Republican.

Mr Van Drew remained a Democrat at least for Wednesday and was joined in voting against both articles by Representative Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota, who represents the most Trump-friendly district (Mr Trump won it by 31 points) of any Democrat.

The only other crossover was Representative Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine, who voted against the second article on obstruction of Congress.

Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat Representative from Hawaii, voted present on both. Every Republican, meanwhile, voted against both articles.

So in the end, the abuse of power article passed 230-197, and the obstruction of Congress article passed 229-198.

Impeachment wasn't so partisan for Mr Bill Clinton, when five Democrats crossed over, nor was it for Mr Richard Nixon, when a half dozen House Judiciary Committee Republicans voted in favour of impeachment; he resigned before the full House voted. This time, it's just the latest almost completely party-line vote.

2. GOP'S LOYALTY TO TRUMP

Republicans have long held their noses with Mr Trump. They've looked past the tweets. They've given him the benefit of the doubt on things like the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. They've dealt with his unorthodox and unwieldy style and the headaches that come with it. And they've gotten their rewards: Oodles of judges, two Supreme Court justices and tax cuts.

But the defences they've mounted of him over the past three months - and particularly on Wednesday - really solidify the bond. Mr Trump asked a foreign country to investigate his political rival based upon spurious evidence, and he did the same with a conspiracy theory that Ukraine might have interfered in the 2016 election rather than Russia. Numerous members of his own administration have said a White House meeting and military aid were withheld in connection with the push for those probes.

 
 
 

And through it all, the GOP has largely shrugged. It initially defended Mr Trump almost purely on process grounds, but its defences of him on Wednesday were more about how there just isn't much substance to the allegations against him. They effectively endorsed his actions. They pretended he didn't actually do the things he indisputably did. They pretended he was actually interested in corruption in Ukraine, against all evidence. They made arguments that strained the bounds of logic to dismiss his actions. They even compared his persecution to Jesus on Wednesday - twice.

It's perhaps no surprise that no Republicans voted to impeach and no GOP senators will likely vote to remove him from office; those are very serious punishments even if they think Mr Trump did something wrong. What's remarkable about what we've just seen, though, is how thoroughly Republicans bear-hugged him.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, said in his closing argument that "it has become increasingly clear that the limits of partisanship have been reached - and passed".

3. DEMOCRATS HAVE TO FIGURE OUT WHAT'S NEXT

The next step in this process is when the House reports the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which will then set about holding the trial. But the process would then be in the hands of the majority Republicans, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has made clear that he's not exactly interested in holding a robust trial with new witnesses. In fact, he's said he would coordinate the whole thing with the White House.

So what now?

If it goes to the Senate, there will be negotiations over how that trial will be conducted. Republicans can indeed control much of it, given that they have a 53-47 majority and can set the rules. Democrats have said they want new witnesses such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. Do they propose some kind of horse trade - perhaps allowing Mr Joe Biden to testify in exchange for one of those two? How do they play this, when it's not longer in their hands?

It sounds like there could also be a curve ball ahead. House leaders are apparently toying with a suggestion some legal scholars have floated: that the House wait to report the articles to the Senate.

"Some think it's a good idea. And we need to talk about it," Mr Hoyer said.

 
 
 

He added: "It's an interesting proposal. I don't think that that's the path we will follow, but that does not mean we will immediately deliver it. There are considerations related to other legislation."

Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, told Politico that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, "indicated she was interested and considering it".

The idea would basically be that doing so would deprive the Senate of the ability to acquit Mr Trump and allow him to claim exoneration. And in the meantime, Democrats could continue to investigate and possibly win court cases to get key information and witness they haven't got thus far. Some Democrats have taken Ms Pelosi's decision not to name impeachment managers yet as a sign that this option is in play. Time will tell.

The downside for Democrats, of course, is if they think this whole process might hurt them in the 2020 election, it will prolong the process and bring it closer to the votes actually being cast.

4. TRUMP HAS NOT BEEN KNOCKED DOWN, AT LEAST POLITICALLY

It's not clear impeachment is hurting Democrats, but at the very least it doesn't seem to have hurt Mr Trump. After months of a whistle-blower report, investigations, hearings and now a vote to impeach Mr Trump, there is basically no evidence the revelations have cost the President support.

His approval rating stands at an average of 43.3 per cent on FiveThirtyEight's database of polls, which is the highest it has been since March 2017 - albeit not hugely different from the low-40s Mr Trump has long been mired in.

His margins against top potential 2020 opponents also appear to have narrowed a bit from the double digits they had been in many polls.

Mr Trump was never going to be removed from office, and Ms Pelosi clearly worried impeachment would harm the impeaching party, much like the impeachment of President Bill Clinton hurt Republicans in 1998.

It is still a long way away from saying this will hurt Democrats in 2020 - and indeed, the modest shifts and the length of time until votes are cast suggest it might have a completely negligible impact - but it is notable that all the revelations haven't diminished Mr Trump's support.

He may not like being labelled as the third impeached president in history, but he looks like a third impeached president who happens to have a fighting chance at re-election.