Donald Trump has escaped a second impeachment, but the American people will be the final judge and jury.
Last week, millions of Americans were glued to their TV screens and watched the US Senate trial against the former President of the United States who was impeached on the grounds of inciting the January 6 riots on Capitol Hill.
The constitutionality vote signaled that the outcome would be acquittal as only five republican senators agreed with their democratic counterparts. As anticipated, five days of intense deliberations did not move the needle in the chamber. Only two additional senators switched sides by the time the trial ended, short of the twelve needed to convict former President Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors.
There have been three presidential impeachment trials in modern times, one against Bill Clinton, two against Donald Trump. In all these trials, the majority of Senators voted along party lines. Political calculations, not factual evidence, shape their choices. Decisions against the party line risk political setbacks. Some GOP senators who cast a guilty verdict last week are censored by their party apparatus.
It should be evident that the Senate is not a court room in a true sense, where Senators transform into impartial jury and judges. For political trials as for the likes of which we observed last week, it would be naive to expect an impartial jury in the so-called make-shift courtroom of the US Senate. Don’t look for the blindfolded lady holding the scale of justice on the Senate floor.
Presidents are judged in the court of public opinion, the jury is the voting public. They speak their minds through monthly polls. As events unfold, the public slowly forms a view. With time, current events gradually transform into stature of history, the opinion then gels into verdict.
The House approved two articles of impeachment against President Clinton in December 1998. When the Senate acquitted him, his popularity was at 62% according to Pew Research and to date President Clinton has maintained high marks from the American public. The court of public opinion also acquitted William Jefferson Clinton.
When the House Judiciary Committee obtained the subpoena power to investigate President Nixon in February 1974, only 38 percent of Americans were in favour of impeachment. In July, that figure rose to 60 percent and was still climbing when the US Supreme Court ordered the President release the tapes.
As public opinion clearly turned against President Nixon, Republican leaders felt less political risk when they told the president that he would not have their support during an impeachment trial. Nixon resigned the next day. The Watergate scandal did not have to go through impeachment to produce a result – the court of public opinion spoke decisively.
In 2003, President George W Bush led the US to declare war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq based on intelligence that Iraq had accumulated an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that they would soon acquire nukes. The war costs hundreds of thousands of lives and added more than $1 trillion to the US debt. Later, the intelligence was proven false.
The birth of Daesh in Iraq was a consequence of the Iraq war. There was neither an investigation nor an impeachment charge brought against George W Bush. Support for the war was bipartisan. The president’s popularity was in excess of 70 percent at the start of the war and declined steadily until his second term ended with a low of 30 percent. The public did not need an impeachment trial, yet convicted him. Today, George W Bush ranks among the least popular presidents of modern times.
Donald Trump’s first impeachment did not move public support either for or against him. A Harvard Harris poll reported that his approval rating remained at 46 percent, before and after the impeachment, and did not fluctuate much throughout his presidency, not until the Capitol Hill riots, when he lost as much as 6 percent in one month.
The second impeachment, however, has done serious damage to Donald Trump’s approval. About 15 percent of GOP voters want him convicted. This figure fits well with the 14 percent of total GOP senators who convicted him in the Senate. A quarter of Republicans want him banished from the political arena – and Mitch McConnell is among them. He did not convict but condemned Trump.
So far, there is a good match between public opinion polls and how senators voted, but it is too early to call for a public verdict. The jury will not settle the case soon, perhaps not until 2022 midterm elections.
As it stands now, the GOP is the party of Trump. The party apparatus is taking a stand against those who voted guilty and anyone who dissents against the former president is fed to the lions as political raw meat.
There are several factors that will shape Republican public opinion in the future. The FBI might unfold new findings unfavourable for Trump and his role in the riots that chip away at a chunk of his approval. Big money donors may choose to part ways, and offer support to McConnell’s candidates. Blue-collar voters who voted for Trump may decide to support President Biden in larger numbers.
Donald Trump tweeted to his supporters that it is just the beginning. But it is also the start of Donald Trump's trial in the court of public opinion.
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