The House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump on Wednesday, making him just the third president ever to be impeached. The two votes fell almost perfectly along party lines, with 229 members supporting both articles of impeachment against Trump, all of them Democrats except for Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who is an independent, and 197 members opposing both articles, including every Republican and two Democrats. (Jared Golden of Maine, a Democrat, voted for the article accusing Trump of abusing his office but against the obstruction of Congress charge. He was the only member of the House who didn’t vote the same way on both articles.1)
At least right now, as the House vote suggests, there’s no indication that there are anywhere close to the 67 votes in the Senate that would be needed to remove Trump from office. (Republicans have a 53-47 advantage2 in the upper chamber.) At the moment, impeachment appears likely to end up serving mostly as a stern condemnation of Trump’s actions by House Democrats.
Still, the impeachment of a president is a monumental event, so it’s worth looking at what we learned from these votes, and from the three-month process that led up to them.
Republicans defended some of Trump’s worst conduct
No House Republican voted for Trump’s impeachment, and that was not particularly surprising. Some Republicans in Congress did eventually break with President Nixon amid the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. But we are in a different time, with a Republican Party that is both more conservative and more willing to break traditional norms than it was in Nixon’s era.
What I did find surprising, however, was how House Republicans framed their opposition to impeachment. I expected a decent-sized bloc of House members to essentially take the following stance: “President Trump should not have tried to force the Ukranian government to start an investigation of the Bidens in order to receive military aid or be granted a White House visit, and we condemn soliciting help from a foreign government to win an election. But we don’t think this is an impeachable offense. We think whether Trump should remain president or not should be decided by the voters in 2020, an election that is not that far away.” Rep. John Katko of New York essentially said exactly that, and perhaps numerous other House Republicans gave versions of that argument to their constituents back home and I missed coverage of it.
But at least in the public hearings on Capitol Hill, House Republicans would not concede that Trump did anything wrong at all. Instead, they went out of their way to reject the extensive and detailed evidence that the Trump administration tried to force the Ukranian government to investigate the Bidens. GOP representatives also kept suggesting that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to hurt Trump in the same way that Russia did to hurt Hillary Clinton, which isn’t true.
This full-scale defense was not a given. Some House Republicans have, at times, rebuked Trump. Some did so in the aftermath of his refusal to condemn white nationalists marching in Charlottesville in 2017. Some did so after his comments earlier this year that several women of color serving in the House should “go back” to their home countries. Moreover, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as numerous GOP figures outside of Congress, have criticized Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine, even if they have not necessarily cast his behavior as impeachment-worthy.
But in looking at their words and deeds over the past few months, House Republicans have effectively given Trump the green light to solicit other foreign governments to help him win next year’s election. It looks like House Republicans would defend Trump if he, for example, asked Saudi Arabia to investigate the Democratic nominee next year.
Back in January 2017, it was hard to imagine that the Trump administration would pressure a foreign government to investigate one of his potential 2020 opponents — never mind that Republicans would aggressively defend it. But here we are. Perhaps congressional Democrats will defend President Biden or President Sanders in 2023 if either asks the French government to investigate GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley. But for now, this vote seems less like an example of the increasing partisan divide in Washington and more like a GOP deeply committed to defending Trump, no matter what he does.
The Democrats stuck together
Throughout this process, I expected at least a few of the 29 Democrats who supported the initial impeachment inquiry despite representing districts that Trump won in 2016 to end up voting against impeachment itself. But the only one who voted against either of the two articles was Golden of Maine. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who voted against the initial inquiry, was essentially the only House Democrat who opposed both articles of impeachment. I say “essentially” because Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey also voted against both the impeachment inquiry and the impeachment articles themselves. But it’s not clear if we should really count Van Drew as a Democratic opponent of impeachment, since it became public a few days ago that he planned to switch parties and become a Republican after the impeachment vote.
In the end, both the left and center-left factions of the Democratic Party got what they wanted on impeachment. House Democrats did “impeach the motherfucker,” to use the words of Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, one of the members of “The Squad.” (Her statement caused much consternation among some in her own party when she made it back in January.) At the same time, as more center-left House Democrats wanted, the two articles of impeachment were narrowly drawn — limited to the Ukraine scandal and leaving out Trump’s controversial actions that were chronicled in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Party predicted votes, nothing else really did
The three Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 voted against impeachment. So did the 20 House Republicans who are retiring from political office.3 And as I said above, basically all of the swing-district Democrats voted for impeachment.
So partisanship really mattered. But I think these party-line votes also reflected the members’ self-interest. If you are a swing-district member from either party, you need independent voters and perhaps even voters from the other party to win reelection. But the majority of your supporters are still likely to be co-partisans. You can’t afford to annoy them so much that they won’t back you. With the overwhelming majority of Republicans opposing impeachment and the overwhelming majority of Democrats in favor, the safe vote for a swing-district member was the party-line one. The retiring Republican members are likely to seek jobs (in lobbying or other fields) where they are paid in part for their contacts among congressional Republicans and in a Republican White House. So voting for impeachment serves their self-interest as well.
Van Drew perfectly illustrated this dynamic. His office’s internal polling reportedly showed that his Democratic constituents would be furious with the first-term congressman if he voted against impeachment, and Democratic voters might support a primary challenge against him. So Van Drew had a choice: Be a Democrat or be against Trump’s impeachment — but he couldn’t be both. He chose the latter.
The process didn’t seem to affect public opinion
Support for impeachment increased substantially soon after the Ukraine scandal started dominating headlines, in late September and early October. During that time, the broad details of the scandal became widely known, and several prominent moderate Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came out in favor of starting the impeachment process. By mid-October, most Democrats and more than 40 percent of independents were backing impeachment. And public opinion hasn’t really moved much since then, even during the sometimes-riveting hearings conducted by the House Intelligence Committee in November.
What does this tell us? I think there’s a case to be made that what moved Democratic voters and perhaps some Democratic-leaning independents to back impeachment was as much Pelosi and other Democratic elites embracing it as the underlying evidence (Pelosi initially opposed impeachment after the Mueller probe ended but before the Ukraine story broke). It’s important to think about elites shaping opinion because it may also be a factor on the GOP side. If a sizable bloc of Republican congressmen, several hosts on Fox News and some prominent conservative groups had publicly condemned Trump’s behavior, would impeachment have more than 10 percent support among Republicans? Maybe. The story here may be that Republican elites opposed impeachment and convinced GOP voters to do the same, rather than GOP voters opposing impeachment and thereby forcing GOP members of Congress to oppose it too.
Either way, the hearings didn’t substantially increase the overall popularity of impeachment. That said, I don’t think that’s because the Democrats dropped the ball. Nearly half of Americans (around 47 percent) support impeaching the president. That’s an extremely big and important number — and it’s completely different from the 1990s, when Bill Clinton’s impeachment was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Americans’ views of Congress and Trump didn’t change
On Sept. 18, before the details of the Ukraine story were clear or House Democrats had mobilized to push for impeachment, roughly 42 percent of Americans approved of Trump and 54 percent disapproved. About 47 percent said they supported Democrats being in control of Congress, and 40 percent supported Republicans controlling Congress. Exactly three months later, those numbers have barely changed: Trump is at 43 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove. And Democrats lead the congressional generic ballot 47 percent to 41 percent.
So it’s not clear this process mattered that much electorally — Democrats would seem to have an advantage in next year’s House elections, the GOP seems to have the edge in the Senate, and Trump seems poised to lose the popular vote but could again win an Electoral College majority. I don’t want to rule out the idea that the Senate trial will have a bigger electoral impact than the House impeachment process did, but that seems very unlikely for now.
That’s not to say that the impeachment push didn’t matter. As I described above, the process has important implications — in terms of GOP party politics, the relationship between Congress and the presidency, and more. We have a president who both has been impeached and has a real chance of winning reelection. That may say more about this moment in U.S. history than anything else.