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What Happens When An Impeached President Runs For Reelection?

The U.S. Senate acquitted President Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Wednesday — the end of a trial that lasted about three weeks. The chamber’s Republicans blocked Democratic motions to call witnesses during the trial and then voted to acquit Trump. The votes were almost entirely along party lines. All 47 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents voted for both articles of impeachment. Mitt Romney of Utah was the only senator from either party to break party ranks, voting in favor of the abuse of power article and against the obstruction charge.

The final votes were 48-52 against the abuse of power charge, and 47-53 against the obstruction charge.

Watch Mitt Romney’s speech prior to Trump’s acquittal

Trump is only the third president to be impeached in U.S. history. He is also the third president to be acquitted in the Senate. (Richard Nixon is not one of the three, as he resigned before a full House vote or Senate trial.)

Trump is the first president, however, who will run in a general election after an impeachment and acquittal — Andrew Johnson ran for the Democratic nomination after his impeachment and acquittal in 1868, but didn’t win, and Bill Clinton could not run after his impeachment and acquittal because of term limits.

In other words, the circumstances of Trump’s impeachment are unique. Viewed narrowly, nothing has really changed — Trump remains in office, and is likely to continue to disregard traditional norms and, at times, core democratic values. His approval rating isn’t great, but it hasn’t meaningfully gone up or down during the impeachment process. But in part because Trump will now run for reelection, the impeachment process has a number of important implications.

1. Trump could feel he has license to do whatever he wants till November — and beyond

There is clear evidence that Trump, using both his official government aides and his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, postponed both a White House visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine as he pushed for the Ukrainians to announce an investigation of the Bidens. So the Republicans in the House and the Senate, by refusing to join with Democrats to force Trump from office, have effectively exonerated the president for actions that are arguably both illegal (according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office) and authoritarian (according to experts on authoritarianism). By leaving Trump in office, Republicans have to some extent also validated the very expansive views of the president’s authority and power that Trump’s lawyers invoked in defending him against impeachment.

Republicans in Congress also essentially consented to the president circumventing the legislative branch. Congress authorized military aid to Ukraine, but Trump refused to release it unless Ukraine complied with a condition (investigate the Bidens) that Congress likely never would have sanctioned. Giuliani essentially was directing U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine, even though he was not confirmed by Congress, and Congress did not know the extent of his involvement until it was discovered by the press.

So post-acquittal, what will Trump do next? Does he withhold foreign aid from other nations if they refuse to investigate the eventual Democratic nominee? Does Trump’s administration, which refused to comply with subpoenas and document requests during the House’s impeachment investigation, basically disregard any future attempts at congressional oversight? Have Republicans in Congress left the country and the world with an American president who believes he is essentially above the law? The stakes here are enormous.

The answer to those questions, in my view, is maybe, as opposed to a clear yes. Remember, one of the defenses of Trump by congressional Republicans throughout this process has been that Ukraine eventually did get the military aid. The White House released the aid on Sept. 11, two days after the House announced it was opening an inquiry into the president’s actions regarding Ukraine. So it’s not clear that Republicans in Congress have actually condoned the idea that aid to other countries from the U.S. can or should be conditioned on those nations agreeing to investigate Trump’s political rivals. And perhaps Trump won’t actually push another foreign government to investigate a rival because he wants to avoid criticism, minimize the potential for a second impeachment or, yes, because he now understands it’s improper.

So Trump may not have a full green light to do whatever he wants. But it’s closer to green than it is to red.

2. The GOP is fully, totally aligned with Trump

No Republicans in the House and only one in the Senate (Romney) voted for Trump’s impeachment or removal. Influential voices in the party, such as GOP governors and Fox News anchors, stood by him throughout the process. Fewer than 10 percent of Republican voters support the president’s removal. Other than Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Romney, there were few prominent GOP voices who stated unequivocally that it was inappropriate for the president and his team to give any suggestion to Ukraine that U.S. aid would be tied to an investigation of the Bidens.

For some Republicans, this loyalty to Trump contradicts one of the core goals of most politicians: winning reelection. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, for example, is up for reelection in November in a Democratic-leaning state where Trump is not particularly popular.

He not only voted against Trump’s removal, but took a strong, public stance against having witnesses in the trial.

But Gardner and other senators seeking to retain seats Democrats are targeting this November, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona, may have played the politics of impeachment smartly. In a party where loyalty to Trump is highly valued, creating any real distance between you and the president may cost you Republican votes that you absolutely must have to win. And there’s no real guarantee that you’d pick up independent or Democratic votes in the bargain. In fact, given current levels of negative partisanship — where supporters of one party hate the other party more than they like their own — picking up support from anti-Trump voters seems highly unlikely.

3. Impeachment backlash hasn’t materialized

Democrats were leery of pushing for impeachment for much of 2019, amid the investigation of Trump by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In Democrats’ view, a partisan impeachment backfired on congressional Republicans in the last few years of the Clinton presidency, and they wanted to avoid a similar backlash. I think that interpretation of the Clinton impeachment is a bit off. Republicans won control of the House, Senate and presidency in the 2000 elections, with Al Gore distancing himself from Clinton, who Gore viewed as a controversial figure in part because of the impeachment process.

Democrats felt forced to push for impeachment after Trump’s actions towards Ukraine became public. The impeachment process ended up with party-line votes, a result House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to avoid. But there is little sign that voters have turned on Democrats. According to FiveThirtyEight’s trackers, Democrats lead on the congressional generic ballot, about half of Americans support removing Trump from office and Trump remains fairly unpopular.

4. The 2020 election will be all-out partisan war

OK, you might say that we knew this already, and maybe we did. But congressional Democrats have, in their actions and words, suggested that Trump is unfit to be president and should be removed. Trump, through his actions and words, has shown that he will do basically anything to keep power. Already, America can at times feel like it’s in a non-military civil war, with two competing coalitions that question not just the other coalition’s policy views, but its values and its Americanness.

A Democratic nominee, particularly Biden, is likely to campaign on the idea that he or she is the last defense against Trump turning America into a less democratic and tolerant nation. Trump rose to power as the champion of people who felt aggrieved and ignored by an increasingly liberal, multicultural America. Post-impeachment, Trump is likely to make acting aggrieved even more a core part of his message — with the president likely to cite his own impeachment as example of how and his supporters must defend themselves against an out-of-control American left.

5. The problems with America’s democracy have been on full display

There’s an active debate among scholars and journalists about whether to describe American politics by focusing on polarization (the two sides are really divided) or by focusing on the radicalization of the Republican Party (so one side is really causing the division). Another disagreement is whether American voters are really divided or if the division exists mainly among political elites.

The impeachment process shows how these ideas are all interconnected — and how it’s hard to tell a simple story about what’s wrong with America’s democracy and who is to blame. Trump’s actions toward Ukraine were radical — Barack Obama did not try to have a foreign government investigate Romney in 2012. Republican elites generally defended Trump’s conduct. So did Republican voters. But polls showed some wariness about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine among a sizable bloc of GOP voters (about a fourth in some polls). That Trump skeptic, however, wasn’t really represented on Fox News or Capitol Hill. So Republican politicians and Trump are probably driving polarization but also responding to GOP voters, who choose Trump over more than a dozen more traditional candidates in 2016 and still strongly approve of him now.

Post-impeachment, we are left with a lot of unknowns that were unimaginable five years ago. Will the American president allow a truly free and fair election? Has he created a precedent where future presidents will use government power to investigate their political rivals? If he wins a second term, what other democratic norms and values will he flout?

CORRECTION (Feb. 6, 2020, 10:16 a.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Andrew Johnson did not run for president after his impeachment in 1868. In fact, after serving out the remainder of Abraham Lincoln’s term, Johnson briefly sought the Democratic nomination in 1868 but was not a general election candidate.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.