President Donald Trump fixed a place in history once again Wednesday, this time as the first president to be twice impeached. But the background and circumstances of this latest rebuke probably will be remembered as much as or more than the vote itself - set against a country seething with anger and the streets of the capital patrolled by thousands of troops ahead of the coming transfer of power.
Over the nearly six-year span encompassing Trump’s entry into politics and the life of his presidency, the country has been changed dramatically, but never as much as in the time between the two impeachment votes. When Trump’s term ends, he will leave behind a country not just divided and in disrepair but one that has been seeded with combustible obstacles in the path of President-elect Joe Biden.
There will be no clean break from one administration to another. The effects of Trump’s presidency will spill over into the early days - and perhaps longer - of Biden’s administration, from a Senate impeachment trial to threats of violence and unrest that have shown no real sign of easing since last week’s attack on the Capitol by an armed mob inspired by the president himself.
Beyond the fact that 10 Republicans supported the article of impeachment, there were other differences between Wednesday’s floor debate and the one that took place in December 2019. A year ago, Republicans were far more aggressive in asserting that the president had not committed an impeachable offense. On Wednesday, they decried the violent attack on the Capitol but spoke more of the potentially damaging consequences of impeaching Trump with so few days left in his term and with the country so on edge.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who supported efforts to challenge the electoral college count even after the marauders had desecrated the Capitol, warned that impeaching Trump would further divide a divided nation, saying this was not the time to “fan the flames of partisan division.”
That sounded like a hollow call for unity from someone who, in the past few days, has been weighing the costs to his party and his own political future as he and his colleagues have seen one corporation after another announce that they would not make political contributions to politicians who sought to overturn the election. After allying himself closely to the president, McCarthy said Wednesday that Trump bore “some responsibility” for the attack on the Capitol, a measure of the shifting political winds.
To Democrats, the question was not whether impeachment would further divide the country - rather, it was one of accountability. With or without impeachment, the country under Trump has moved steadily toward ever-greater hostility and, among part of Trump’s base, more open talk of redressing grievances with the use of violence.
The videos from last week’s attack have shaken lawmakers and citizens alike. On the morning of Wednesday’s vote, there were multiple photographs of uniformed troops, weapons at their sides, inside the Capitol. Metal detectors were set up outside the House chamber - to the anger of Republicans. Tall fencing surrounds the Capitol complex. Streets are shut down, and traffic has been snarled in parts of downtown Washington.
All this was the uneasy prelude to Biden’s inauguration next Wednesday, amid warnings from law enforcement officials about violent protests in state capitals and in the District of Columbia. Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor and historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, drew a connection between what the country has seen in recent days and what transpired in the 1850s.
“Before the Civil War, the country was not in a civil war, but there was this growing acceptance of violence,” Foner said. “The events of a couple of days ago are shocking in many ways, but one of them is just showing how at least the people who took part, the Trump supporters, how fully they’ve embraced the idea that violence is a perfectly acceptable and normal way of expressing your views. That kind of attitude does have a way or can have a way of just spiraling even more out of control as time goes on.”
Harvard University professor and historian Jill Lepore asked how the country had reached this point. “What are the steppingstones that take you across the enormous chasm that divides civil protest from armed, mass violent insurrection and an attempt to overthrow the government?” she said.
Did it start with the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and the tactics of then- Speaker Newt Gingrich? Was it fueled by the tea party uprising during Barack Obama’s administration? Was it the arrival of Trump and his nativist rhetoric?
The time between the first and second Trump impeachments span fewer than 400 days and yet a lifetime. In those nearly 400 days, an incomprehensible series of events unfolded, each worthy of historical significance and all of which the president made worse rather than better.
The first impeachment took place before the coronavirus pandemic began, leaving more than 375,000 Americans dead and killing people at a higher rate than at any time since the virus emerged here. The president refused to take the pandemic seriously and instead sought to politicize it, belittling the wearing of masks and calling for the reopening of the economy before health experts said it was safe to do so.
The first impeachment came before racial protests erupted across the nation, sparked by new killings of Black people by law enforcement. The killings and the protests, some of which turned violent, forced much of the country to confront more directly than at any time since the 1960s a history of racism and discrimination and the hunger for justice.
Trump used the protests, especially the violence that accompanied some of them, to stoke more racial animosity. Pointing to those who invaded the Capitol and the image of the Confederate flag being carried by one of the rioters, Foner said, “These groups don’t think Black people are really legitimately part of the citizenry, just as in Reconstruction. . . . Anyone carrying a Confederate flag certainly believes that. And that’s a very dangerous idea to have around.”
Finally, the first impeachment also came before an election that produced the biggest voter turnout in history and, most profoundly, before Trump sought to overturn the results. His repeated use of conspiracy theories and lies about widespread fraud, his claims that the election had been stolen, started a straight line that led to the ransacking of the Capitol a week ago and then to Wednesday’s vote in the House.
“I know it’s trite to talk about the news cycle,” Lepore said. “This is the history cycle. It’s not just that the news cycle is accelerated, but what are these monumental historical events recede so quickly that it’s difficult to get a grasp on anything, that we all are living through these strange, strange times. I don’t normally have that as a historian. I generally feel quite anchored in time.”
Brenda Wineapple, who wrote the history of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in her book “The Impeachers,” said she has been asked whether impeaching Trump threatens to further divide the country. “From my point of view, you can’t be any more divided,” she said, “and my hope would be an impeachment vote is actually a way, ironically, of beginning to heal the country and say, look, someone has to take responsibility.”
Wineapple noted that the campaign slogan of Ulysses Grant, who followed Johnson as president, was “Let us have peace.” She sees potential parallels with Biden’s repeated calls for unity and healing, and the possibility that many of the 74 million people who supported Trump in the election will respond to that message.
But the vote in the House on Wednesday showed that the Republican Party remains in the grip of a president who refuses to say that the election was fairly decided, that he lost and that he congratulates Biden on his victory. At the same time, the law enforcement dragnet continues to round up suspects after the events of last week as new and alarming information emerges.
All of these things make the context of the second vote to impeach Trump materially different than the first - along with the notation of him being the first to receive this second black mark.