Donald Trump is now the only president to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives. That makes him responsible for half of the presidential impeachments in U.S. history. Just 10 Republicans joined all the House Democrats voting for impeachment on Wednesday, but that’s the largest number of representatives ever to vote to impeach their own party’s president.
In fact, it was worse than that for Trump. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he wanted to censure the president. Three other Republicans released a statement condemning his “words and actions.” Few Republicans who spoke in the House debate joined in condemning Trump’s actions, but few defended him, either. Not many of them spoke at all, and the ones who did spent more time talking about Black Lives Matters protests than about Trump.
Why? To hear most of the Republicans tell it, Trump was just an innocent passive observer to all of the scandals of his administration, including the false charges of election fraud that roiled the country and climaxed in an invasion of the U.S. Capitol by his followers on Jan. 6. Democrats, they claimed, simply had blind hatred of the president. Indeed, their most frequent argument against impeachment — as it was in 2019 when the House took its first vote to impeach Trump — seemed to be that it was illegitimate because Democrats wanted it too much.
This is nonsense. Democrats had plenty of animus (hatred isn’t too strong a word in many cases) for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and yet neither was impeached by Democratic Houses despite serious scandals.
So what’s the difference with Trump? To some degree, it’s certainly the extent of his lawlessness. Trump was in violation of the emolument clauses of the Constitution from his first day in office in 2017 as he used his Washington hotel and other properties to collect fees from foreign officials. Soon after that, he fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of an effort to obstruct an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, as detailed later by the Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump lied about election fraud immediately after winning in 2016 before falsely claiming crimes against him after losing in 2020, and then (as the article of impeachment says) pressuring the responsible officials in several states to commit election fraud on his behalf.
But I don’t think it’s just Trump’s lawbreaking that provoked Democrats to act and convinced some Republicans to go along, others to condemn his actions, staffers to resign in protest, former administration officials to say the president should be removed from office, and numerous Republican former elected officials to agree. Trump has alienated almost everyone in the political system, just as President Richard Nixon did before resigning as impeachment loomed almost half a century before.
Here’s what the political scientist Nelson W. Polsby said about Nixon decades ago:
“In [Nixon’s] view, his election conferred not only an extraordinary measure of legitimacy upon him, but also a kind of illegitimacy upon many of the very people with whom a President ordinarily does business: the bureaucrats, interest group leaders, journalists, Congressmen, and party leaders of official Washington … To most of these groups in the course of his Presidency Nixon gave intentional offense, and in each case it was offense of a character that carried with it a clear threat of a very basic kind … Nixon’s policies … consisted of a systematic trampling of his political fences, a direct assertion that the legitimacy of the Presidency entailed the illegitimacy of those other political elites to whom a President normally is accountable.”
In other words, Nixon and Trump acted as if they were authoritarian leaders, rather than as one of many legitimate pieces of a constitutional government.
Trump was impeached on Wednesday for specific actions he took from Nov. 3 through Jan. 6, and because many members of Congress fear that he is a danger to the nation. But Trump had also given himself no room for error. He built no relationships with any Democrats, and relatively few with Republicans. Yes, many Republicans were willing to tolerate him in exchange for his fealty to most orthodox conservative policy goals, and because of the electoral danger of a divided party if they did not go along. Others, following the strategy honed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of tearing down institutions, seem to have supported him precisely because he was an agent of disruption, chaos and destruction. But a serious working relationship with anyone? Even Nixon had those.
Electoral incentives and partisan polarization will probably save Trump from a quick removal after a hasty Senate trial, and may save him from being convicted by the Senate and disqualified from holding federal office in the future. That won’t become clear until after Joe Biden assumes the presidency on Jan. 20. But after four years in Washington, Trump leaves without significant friends or allies, and with staff and executive branch officials openly ignoring his orders. He’ll be remembered as a weak, lawless failure.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.