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Historian: With Impeachment Acquittal, the GOP Has Given Trump a Blank Check to Do Anything He Wants

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The U.S. Senate has acquitted President Trump of two impeachment charges in just the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. Trump was accused of abusing power and obstructing Congress to aid his re-election campaign by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. Every Democratic senator voted to remove President Trump from office, but they were joined by just one Republican: Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who supported impeaching Trump on abuse of power. Romney became the first senator ever to vote against his own party’s president in an impeachment trial. President Trump responded on Twitter by hailing the vote as “the country’s Victory” and described the impeachment effort as a hoax. He also tweeted a video claiming Mitt Romney was a secret Democratic asset. Donald Trump Jr. called for Romney to be expelled from the Republican Party. While the impeachment trial is over, the probe of President Trump’s actions could continue. On Wednesday, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said the House will likely subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton. We speak with Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.

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StoryJan 31, 2020Inappropriate, Not Impeachable: Key GOP Senator’s “Astonishing” Statement Clears Way for Acquittal
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Senate has acquitted President Trump of two impeachment charges in just the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. Trump was accused of abusing power and obstructing Congress to aid his re-election campaign by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presided over Wednesday’s vote.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: The presiding officer directs judgment to be entered in accordance with the judgment of the Senate as follows. The Senate, having tried Donald John Trump, president of the United States, upon two articles of impeachment exhibited against him by the House of Representatives, and two-thirds of the senators present not having found him guilty of the charges contained therein, it is therefore ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles.

AMY GOODMAN: Every Democratic senator voted to remove President Trump from office, but they were joined by one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who supported impeaching Trump on one count: abuse of power. Senator Romney became the first senator to ever vote against his own party’s president in an impeachment trial. He spoke on the Senate floor prior to his vote.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY: The allegations made in the articles of impeachment are very serious. As a senator juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.

AMY GOODMAN: Romney chokes up.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY: I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Senator Mitt Romney went on to describe how he came to his decision.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY: So the verdict is ours to render under our Constitution. The people will judge us for how well and faithfully we fulfill our duty. The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor. Yes, he did. The president asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. The president withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so. The president delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders. The president’s purpose was personal and political. Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust. What he did was not perfect. No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump responded on Twitter by hailing the acquittal vote as, quote, “the country’s Victory” and described the impeachment effort as a hoax. He also tweeted a video claiming Mitt Romney was a secret Democratic asset. Donald Trump Jr. called for Romney to be expelled from the Republican Party.

While the impeachment trial is over, the probe of President Trump’s actions could continue. On Wednesday, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler said the House will likely subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Trump’s acquittal, we’re joined by Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at University of Connecticut, fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.

Professor Sinha, welcome back to Democracy Now! First, respond to the acquittal. This was a historic day, only the third time in U.S. history a Senate impeachment trial was held.

MANISHA SINHA: Yes, indeed, it was. Trump may think of this as, you know, having escaped, being acquitted, even though he remains impeached by the House. I do think, though, despite the acquittal, that the whiff of illegitimacy that has always been around this president ever since his election — the largest popular vote loss, accusations of Russian meddling, squeaking into the office through the Electoral College, demeaning the office by his behavior, flouting the rule of law — what I think is that this impeachment, despite the acquittal, reinforces that air of illegitimacy around Trump, no matter how much he has been grandstanding in the State of the Union and the ways in which an overwhelming majority of the Senate GOP has basically given him a blank check to do anything he wants.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Sinha, if you could talk about the significance of Mitt Romney voting against his party? He was the first senator to do so in an impeachment trial.

MANISHA SINHA: I do think that Mitt Romney is a true profile in courage. Mike Pence and the Republicans have been hailing a corrupt Republican senator from the 19th century, who was bribed into acquitting Johnson, as a profile in courage. But really, it was Mitt Romney. I do not agree with Senator Romney’s politics. As a resident of Massachusetts, I regularly voted against him, even though he was very popular. And I certainly voted against him when he was running against Barack Obama in 2012.

But his speech yesterday struck me as historic, both in the ways in which he evoked his oath of office to the Constitution but also the ways in which he evoked his Mormon faith, his religiosity, as moving him to do the right thing. As a historian of abolition, I also appreciated that. I do think that Mitt Romney will be looked on very kindly by history. And I think it is mind-boggling that Trump called him a Democratic asset. I mean, this man was the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. It just goes to show how much of its political and moral mooring the current GOP and its leader, Trump, in the White House has lost.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to a contrast to Senator Romney, and that’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska speaking on the Senate floor earlier this week. She called Trump’s behavior shameful but said she’d vote to acquit him.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI: The president’s behavior was shameful and wrong. His personal interests do not take precedence over those of this great nation. The president has the responsibility to uphold the integrity and the honor of the office, not just for himself, but for all future presidents. Degrading the office by actions or even name calling weakens it for future presidents, and it weakens our country. … The response to the president’s behavior is not to disenfranchise nearly 63 million Americans and remove him from the ballot. The House could have pursued censure and not immediately jumped to the remedy of last resort. I cannot vote to convict.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Alaska Republican Senator Murkowski. In the midst of this trial, the questions were: What would Murkowski, Senator Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee — Romney was pretty clear from the beginning how he felt — do? Manisha Sinha, professor of America history at University of Connecticut, respond to what she says and how the Republicans made this decision to acquit.

MANISHA SINHA: I thought Professor [sic] Murkowski’s decision to vote against witnesses —

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Murkowski.

MANISHA SINHA: — and evidence and also to eventually acquit Trump was deeply disappointing. She had been very courageous in voting against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, one of the few Republicans who had the gumption to do that. So, one was expecting better things from her. And her statement afterwards, saying that Congress had failed, was actually somewhat laughable, because, in fact, she and the Senate GOP had failed in this entire process. So I was deeply disappointed by Senator Murkowski.

I do know that Mitch McConnell, as the Senate majority leader, wields a lot of power. He also has a lot of moneys that go into the re-election campaigns of the senators. They are also, we hear from an op-ed by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, extremely fearful of Trump. Now, that really is a step toward authoritarianism. When you start fearing the great leader, when you do not act on your principles, when you do not act as a senator of the United States following the rules and procedures of democratic governance, I think that is a very scary time for American democracy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Sinha, I mean, you’re right about that, because you think of what President Trump’s response was to Senator Romney. I mean, within hours, he posted a video on Twitter calling him a secret Democratic asset.

MANISHA SINHA: Exactly. Trump is known to go after his enemies, even his friends who disagree with him. And what’s scary is that people start getting death threats. Representative Schiff has been the target of credible death threats. This should not be happening in a country that is governed by the rule of law and by democratic norms. We are not going to slip into 1930s Germany, where people are being intimidated by words and then by violence. I think we are not there yet, but we are certainly witnessing the kinds of authoritarian behavior and words, that was unthinkable in the United States in its recent past, that you see amongst tin-pot dictators all over the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Murkowski’s path to the Senate was quite astounding. She actually won in Alaska on a write-in — she had lost the Republican primary, and she won as a write-in, running against a Republican and Democrat. But I want to turn now to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking to Fox News Wednesday.

MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: The most aggressive thing you can do to any president is to try to impeach them. And they did it, on a party-line vote. And you could best describe it as Trump derangement syndrome. In other words, whatever he’s for, they are just — have a Pavlovian negative response to it almost immediately. … This was a thoroughly political maneuver. If it was, it was stupid. It backfired. The president’s got the best numbers he’s had since he’s been in office. My members who were in tough races are all looking at better numbers than they were before impeachment started. So, if this was all about the November election, it seems to me we can conclude, at least in the short term here, this was a colossal political mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the role of Mitch McConnell, who proudly said he would not be an impartial juror, that he would coordinate everything with the White House. When there were many who were saying maybe the Republicans will break ranks and ultimately call for witnesses, many others said, no, McConnell’s not going to lose control of his Republican majority. If you could comment, Professor Sinha, on both the power and the role of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and also of Chief Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, who presided over the impeachment trial?

MANISHA SINHA: So, starting with McConnell, I think here is a Senate majority leader who has completely broken the Senate. He began with blocking the nomination of Merrick Garland, and now he behaves in such a venal and such a unprincipled partisan manner. In fact, it’s somewhat laughable that they keep calling this a partisan impeachment. There’s nothing more partisan than the way in which Mitch McConnell has presided over the Senate. He and his fellow senator from Kentucky are doing great damage to that great state. I can say that they follow in the footsteps of Garrett Davis, the representative and, later, senator from Kentucky, who was a Johnson acolyte and a complete racist. I do hope that they don’t continue on this path, but it’s quite likely that Mitch McConnell would be pretty shameless in putting forward the agenda of the Republican Party, no matter the damage that it does to the Senate, to our democratic institutions, to the rule of law. It is quite clear that they want Trump to be vindicated as their party candidate under any circumstances. And Mitch McConnell would be the first one to defend Donald Trump if indeed he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.

Going on to senator — sorry, Chief Justice Roberts, Chief Justice Roberts simply presided over this trial. The best thing that he did was not to read Senator Rand Paul’s question that outed the whistleblower. That did not deter Senator Paul, who calls himself a libertarian but really has behaved like an authoritarian. He read out the whistleblower’s name in his speech. Now, there was some talk that the Democrats, the House managers, would indeed go to Chief Justice Roberts and ask him to intervene and allow for witnesses and evidence to come into the impeachment trial. That did not happen. And I suspect that it did not happen because they sounded him out and he made it quite clear that he would not intervene. And instead of embarrassing him publicly by making that motion, they decided to just let it go. Now, here are Democrats upholding the integrity and the independence of the federal judiciary, of the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Roberts, in not going down that route, as was suggested by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s question. And there are the Republicans willing to tear down anything — anything — standing in their way, as long as they can get Trump re-elected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Professor Sinha, very quickly, before we conclude, if you could talk about what you believe the longer-term effects of this drawn-out impeachment trial will be on the American public and, in particular, on Trump’s supporters? Just prior to the Senate vote on Wednesday, a Gallup poll found that Trump’s job approval rating was at 49%, which is the highest it’s been since he took office.

MANISHA SINHA: Well, you know, polls come and go, and it would be interesting to see who conducted the poll and how it was conducted. As a historian, I tend to take all these things with a pinch of salt, and it’s just literally a snapshot in time. All the polls predicted that Trump would be defeated, and in fact he ends up winning the Electoral College.

I disagree with Senator McConnell. I think Trump will be damaged goods, that this impeachment, the ongoing investigation, the Bolton revelations, as they come out, will eventually swing the pendulum against Trump. I don’t think this is good for Trump at all. I think the entire impeachment process revealed not just the corruption that everyone knows about, not just, you know, the kind of behavior that demeans his office that everyone knows about, but it revealed a person who was willing to sacrifice national interest and security — something that the Republicans actually used to value — for personal gain. This is not even for his private enrichment. You know, he’s been flouting the emoluments clause. He and his family have been flouting the emoluments clause of the Constitution by personally enriching themselves after his election to the presidency. But this is actually even worse than that kind of crude corruption. This is literally playing a game with the country’s security, with the country’s democracy. And that, I think, is extremely troubling. I think that that will eventually penetrate.

You know, the Republicans today remind me a lot of the Democrats in the 1850s. And remember, you have to simply flip parties’ ideological roles when you talk about the 19th century, because the Republican Party was the liberal, progressive party of anti-slavery and big government, and the Democratic Party had become the party of slavery, white supremacy and states’ rights. You know, they just voted along partisan lines. They voted egregious laws protecting slavery, because they had a foolproof majority in Congress, and many times they had the — in fact, most of the times they had the presidency. And then, of course, they went down to a deep defeat, and they were able, eventually, to reinvent themselves in the Progressive Era, the New Deal era and finally with civil rights. Will the current GOP be able to do that? I doubt it. I think they have adopted a strategy of sinking and swimming with Trump. Let us see how far that gets them.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut, fellow at Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, speaking to us from the Harvard Kennedy School, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, where she goes into the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. She wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times headlined “Donald Trump, Meet Your Precursor.” We’ll link to that at democracynow.org.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Iowa. Stay with us.

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