As the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump came to a close on Saturday, Feb. 13 with the U.S. Senate voting 57-43 to convict him — falling short of the two-thirds majority requirement needed for a guilty verdict — Yale faculty weighed in on the proceedings and their significance for democracy in the United States moving forward.
Last week, House impeachment managers presented their case against the former president for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In response, Trump’s defense team presented arguments against the constitutionality of the impeachment of a former president.
“Impeachment is a dead letter in the Constitution,” John Henderson, assistant professor of political science, told the News. “If there was ever a case for impeachment, this was it.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the article of impeachment on Jan. 13 with a 232-197 vote, with 10 Republicans joining all 222 Democrats — four Republicans not voting.
Jacob Hacker, Stanley Resor professor of political science, noted the significance of the trial, as the “jurors were witnesses” to the insurrection — a key point made by House impeachment managers during their arguments.
In an interview with the News, Hacker explained the significance of the 10 House Republicans who broke away from the rest of their party, saying that “you can see that power in the small but meaningful vote of Republicans against Trump.”
Hacker noted that the Senate trial vote was the largest bipartisan vote for the conviction of a president in history, though it was not surprising, for the most part, to see which Republican senators voted in favor of conviction. While seven Republican senators did so, Henderson still foresees Senate Republicans upholding their role as an active opposition party towards the efforts of the Biden administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
During a floor speech after the acquittal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the former president is “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” However, McConnell voted to acquit Trump on the assertion that a former official cannot be convicted by the Senate as they have already left office.
Henderson said that this may have been more of a political decision for McConnell, given his leadership role. As the leader of Senate Republicans, McConnell would have risked further dividing the Republican Party by voting to convict Trump. However, Henderson told the News that while McConnell had a reason for acquittal, he thinks the senator is “deeply, philosophically wrong,” stating that McConnell chose to side with his party, rather than vote in favor of the constitutionality of the trial — and a guilty verdict.
Looking ahead, both Henderson and Hacker said that the Republican Party is fractured, but more so by the insurgency at the Capitol than by the impeachment trial itself. Hacker added that the insurgency will now be the “fundamental divide in the Republican Party.” Henderson noted that the Republican Party will have two principal goals moving forward: one, revamping their strategy for both the upcoming midterm elections and for the next presidential nomination process, and two, maintaining a strong presence in a narrowly divided Congress.
Bryan Garsten, professor of political science and humanities, was interested in the constitutional implications of impeachment, explaining that “the weakness of Congress is a major concern for our system of constitutional government and impeachment was a moment when Congress was exerting its rightful, constitutional authority.”
All three professors agreed that impeachment is a measure that may be used more often, with professor of jurisprudence and history Samuel Moyn adding that “we’ll see it used more and more, just because that’s our recent history.” Moyn also said that impeachment is available for the appropriate circumstances, but he cautioned that its overuse could lead to unpredictable outcomes.
Henderson noted that impeachment still holds significant importance in American government, though the “politics of impeachment will be a perennial point,” meaning that going forward, the role of impeachment as a political tool cannot be overstated.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that the House will work to establish a “9/11-type commission” that will investigate the insurrection. That idea has been met with bipartisan support as legislators have signaled their desire for further investigations into the revolt, according to the Washington Post. Hacker believes that a “9/11 commission is really important,” but cautioned that “I don’t think we should be naive about this,” with regard to the likelihood of further congressional action against the former president.
Donald Trump is the only president in U.S. history to have been impeached twice.
Jose Estrada | firstname.lastname@example.org