Today, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on two articles of impeachment against President Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. It is the third time in American history the House could impeach a president, and a party-line vote is expected.
We asked experts at Princeton University to comment on what a possible impeachment means for President Donald Trump, the 2020 election, and the country.
Charles Cameron specializes in the analysis of political institutions, particularly courts and law, the American presidency, and legislatures. He is a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and on the executive committee of the School’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics (CSDP).
Frances E. Lee specializes in American politics with particular interest focusing on the U.S. Congress and institutional behavior. She is a professor of politics and public affairs in the Department of Politics and the Wilson School.
Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics and professor of politics and affiliated faculty at CSDP, studies American constitutional theory and development, judicial politics, the presidency, and federalism.
Q. Some argue this is an unfair assault against the president, while others feel the evidence is pretty solid. What's your take?
Frymer: The evidence is quite solid because even President Trump more or less agrees with what happened. “Read the transcript!” he said. He just disagrees that it was wrong. He also has an argument about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election that is supported by Russian intelligence and opposed by American intelligence. I am always willing to think critically about any proposition, but in this case, Trump’s evidence relies on a lot of unreliable sources and some quite sordid political figures, as well as some misunderstandings about the workings of computers and cloud-based networks. Moreover, obstruction of Congress is pretty obvious: He won’t let his administration speak to Congress even when subpoenaed. He won’t speak to Congress under oath. He’s distorted reality (or lied) on countless occasions. The evidence for impeachment seems pretty solid to me.
Q. If Trump is impeached in the House, what are the next steps as outlined in the Constitution? How do you expect to see a trial unfold in the Senate?
Whittington: After a majority of the House votes to impeach an officer, the House sends notice to the Senate and the impeached officer that a resolution of impeachment has been adopted. The articles of impeachment outlining the specific charges are then presented to the Senate, and the Senate then begins a trial in which the House and the president can both present their case. The president is convicted and removed only if two-thirds of the senators agree to that action. A majority of the senators can end the trial at any time once they are prepared to vote on the charges brought by the House.
Lee: As Keith said, the next step is a Senate trial. Given that Republicans have majority control of the body, they will move to end the trial as quickly as a chamber majority can be obtained for doing so. Support for the president has not budged among Republicans in the electorate, so I am quite confident that the president will be acquitted in the Senate. The only question is how much process Republicans will see as necessary for purposes of institutional legitimacy before acquittal. I suspect the answer is: not much beyond hearing out the case that the House impeachment managers will present. Calling witnesses would introduce unpredictable elements into the process, so Republicans are unlikely to want to do this and will only do so if a sufficient number of Republicans demand to hear from them. It seems unlikely that cross-pressured Republicans representing swing states will see much benefit to either protracting the impeachment trial or making its politics more unpredictable.
Frymer: It goes to trial in the Senate, and I have no reason to think Republicans are going to do anything other than defend the president. If Democrats make any headway in the Senate, Hunter Biden will be forced to appear, and it will become a circus.
Q. Do you think this impeachment inquiry (and possible trial) has deepened political divides across the country? And what does that mean for the future of the country?
Cameron: The interesting question is, who has broken which way and why. The poll aggregation at fivethirtyeight.com – a high quality operation – shows 85% support for impeachment among Democrats, 9% support among Republicans, and 43% support among Independents. The Republicans only needed to hold their base; the Dems had to hold their base and then convert Independents. They failed on the Independents, which was fairly predictable, simply because it is so incredibly difficult to reach Independents. The Senate trial will be, in effect, a staged reelection commercial for Trump, so the Democrats’ situation will probably not improve. It’s doubtful there will even be a majority for removal much less the necessary two-thirds. Thus, impeachment, both as a real move and as a public relations effort for the Democrats, has flopped. Game over.
Frymer: The nation is already deeply divided. Although the divide is not that evenly matched. If Democrats turn the current advantage they have into Democratic majorities in 2020 and/or shortly after, the divide may continue to be deep but of at least somewhat less consequence for governing.
Lee: The country is closely divided between the two parties and over the Trump presidency. Impeachment has inflamed partisan passions on both sides, but it has not shifted opinion. Most Americans who attend closely to politics are not swing voters. Generally speaking, people follow politics because they have a side and a rooting interest. So people tuning into the details of the impeachment inquiry most intensely are precisely the people least likely to change their minds. In
today’s fragmented media environment, partisans tend to wall themselves off from contrary perspectives by selecting media outlets that reconfirm their priors. Impeachment has thus not much affected the political divides in American politics, beyond raising the emotional temperature.
Whittington: The impeachment seems to have only hardened the two sides of the partisan divide. Although some Republicans no doubt recognize that President Trump’s behavior has been problematic, they are not yet willing to abandon him. Democrats, in turn, think the Republicans are abetting presidential misconduct. It does not seem likely that either side will forgive and forget anytime soon.
Q. What does impeachment mean for the 2020 election? What impact has it had on the parties?
Frymer: I’m not sure it means that much either way. There will be another 250+ scandals between January and November, half of which the media will deem a point of no return for the president. There will also likely be a half dozen moments when the media consensus is that the president is finally being presidential. The impeachment is another piece, albeit a notable one, of an action-packed and scandal-packed four years where public opinion has been remarkably steady.
Lee: I suspect it will be largely forgotten by the 2020 elections. A roughly equivalent amount of time will elapse between the end of the impeachment trial this January and the 2020 elections as between the longest-ever government shutdown of early 2019 and the start of the impeachment inquiry in the fall of 2019. The government shutdown felt like ancient history and was almost totally forgotten by the time the impeachment inquiry got underway this year. The same will likely be true in 2020: The events of the 2020 campaign will override memory of the impeachment events of January 2020.
Cameron: There is a small silver lining for the Democrats: Support for impeachment among Independents rose about 10 percentage points among Independents since the fall. If the Democrats can hold this enhanced skepticism toward Trump, and bake it into the cake, they will have accomplished something. To hold it and build on it, they need continued publicity about scandals, new abuses of power, corruption, and unpopular policies. The president should be thinking about how to win back some of the Independents he lost. But that doesn’t seem to be the way he thinks.