Impeachment Sets Unknown Future Precedent

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Following the impeachment and acquittal of President Donald Trump, political pundits and politicians speculated the future of impeachment.  

Some critics argued the Democratic Party majority House voted to impeach Trump based on little evidence. Other critics said the Republican senators refused to acknowledge the facts by overwhelmingly voting to acquit Trump. 

“It’s pretty clear the president of the United States did learn a lesson: the lesson he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, he can abuse his office, he’ll never ever be held accountable by this Senate,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said according to the Associated Press (Feb. 13, 2020).  

Trump made a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25, 2019. According to a White House transcript, he suggested Zelenskiy look into former Vice President Joe Biden’s dealings in Ukraine. He allegedly told the Ukrainian president that he would withhold U.S. military aid to the country if Ukraine did not comply. 

After the release of multiple whistleblower complaints, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24. 

The House listened to several testimonies and approved two articles of impeachment: obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. But the Senate acquitted Trump on both articles, voting 52 to 48 on one, and 53 to 47 on another. 

The Senate needed 67 votes against acquitting on each article to convict Trump. No U.S. president in history has been removed from office. But Trump is the third U.S. president to be impeached. 

Dave Schmidt, associate professor of history at Bethel University, said impeachment might be more common in the future. 

“All the criticism that Trump has gotten deserves scrutiny,” Schmidt said. “The conversations with…the Ukrainian government, should that be looked into? Sure. Were these impeachable offenses? I don’t think so.” 

Schmidt said past U.S. presidents were engaged in similar activities with foreign nations. If Trump’s actions were impeachable, then there are more actions of misconduct that could be considered impeachable in the future. 

“I think the whole process was political and not intended to discover evidence,” Schmidt said. “The hearings themselves were not designed to find the facts. The hearings were used to identify the basis for impeachment.” 

While impeachment today functions as a partisan political tool, the founding fathers envisioned a nonpartisan process. Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers in 1788, that the Senate has the final verdict because it should function above politics.  

He also wrote that political divisions damage the impeachment process. Tom LaFountain, assistant professor of criminal justice at Bethel University, said Hamilton’s fears came true. The creation of political parties fractured political institutions like the Senate. 

“I think impeachment is one of those situations where it simply won’t work and probably can’t work,” John Haas, assistant professor of history at Bethel, said. “Because where [the founders] envisioned, you would have 100 separate individuals using their individual judgement to assess the case on its merits with a lot of political calculation mixed in.” 

Haas compared impeachment to a jury paying no attention to trial evidence and only uniting to take down the prosecutor.  

Hamilton did not include rules for the Senate trial either. LaFountain said the most interesting part of the trial was seeing the Senate make up the rules. 

“When you think about it…not only then does the party in power control the vote, they kind of control how it’s going to play out, too,” LaFountain said. “Because certainly they’ll have the votes to be able to…make the rules for the trial itself.” 

The Senate’s vote to block subpoena power demonstrated the lack of trial rules. On Jan. 6, 2020, John Bolton, former U.S. national security adviser, said he would testify to the Senate if they subpoenaed him. But the Republican-controlled Senate voted against having any witnesses testify. 

LaFountain said the power to subpoena the president has been weakened for future impeachments.  

“What would happen is the next time a president is in this situation, he can simply stonewall,” LaFountain said. “Nothing’s going to happen on the subpoena until it goes up in front of the Supreme Court.” 

Trump’s refusal to comply to the House’s subpoena set a precedent for future presidents.  

Haas said Trump changed the presidency, which could alter the impeachment process. Now, people expect the president to unite the political base, rather than the whole nation. 

According to the Feb. 5 issue of Newsweek, Trump polled near a three-year high the day of his Senate acquittal. Despite his flaws and misconduct, impeachment did not affect the country’s view of him. 

“The most important thing for future parties in the House that are contemplating impeachment is going to be: Where do our voters stand?” Haas said. “On top of that, it’s going to be how outrageous and obvious is…whatever the action was that triggered the impeachment.” 

Alan Dershowitz, an attorney for Trump, sparked controversy when making his legal argument. He argued that the president could use a quid pro quo for personal political benefit if they believe their reelection is of public interest. 

Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead House manager, rejected Dershowitz’s theory, according to Politico (Jan. 30, 2020). Schiff said Dershowitz’s interpretation gives presidents the immunity to further their interests. 

While Haas agreed that Dershowitz went too far, he said Dershowitz made a Nixonian argument. 

“Is the constitution a suicide pact?” Haas said. “That’s one of the questions. Do you have to follow the constitution to a T, even if it means losing the nation?” 

Despite impeachment’s profound effect on the nation, the conservation at Bethel has been minimal. LaFountain and Schmidt both said students do not want to talk about it because of Bethel’s homogeneous political view. 

Haas recommended students be aware of what is going on, but not to worry. 

“Since it is our country and our tax dollars that pay for what it does and it is our guilt in cases where wrong has been done, then we should be aware,” Haas said. “We are not disconnected from things [that] are being done presumably for our benefit just because we don’t know about them.” 

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