The wheels of justice are slowly but remorselessly closing in on Donald Trump and his gang. Mr Trump’s second impeachment is unprecedented in two extraordinary ways. No other president in American history has been institutionally censured with a second impeachment. Mr Trump must now carry this unique double burden of disgrace into history. But the second impeachment has also been the most rapidly crafted of them all. That is because, unlike its predecessors, it is an urgent response to a clear and present danger to American democracy.
Only last week, Mr Trump was still actively using the presidential bully pulpit to promote his lies about the 2020 election result and urge his supporters to march on the US Capitol to challenge the vote. Today, rightly cut off from his social media following and in the wake of a 232-197 congressional vote against him on Wednesday, he is ineluctably becoming a humbled – though never a humble – figure. Mr Trump remained defiant and mendacious in a White House video this week, but he now faces a second Senate trial and the very real prospect, if he is found guilty, of being barred from holding office ever again. This is not the future that Mr Trump planned for himself.
A year ago, when Mr Trump was first impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the vote to put him on trial went almost wholly along party lines. This week, in the second impeachment, party loyalty was still very strong, but there were significant shifts and cracks within the Republican party. Ten House Republicans voted with the Democrats, including the third most senior in the party leadership, Liz Cheney. Several others, notably the party’s House leader, Kevin McCarthy, tried to triangulate between a previously unthinkable readiness to denounce Mr Trump and a long-familiar reluctance to stand up to him by voting for impeachment. Nevertheless, the majority of Republicans, who a week ago had also voted to challenge a number of electoral college results, again remained cravenly loyal to Mr Trump.
Yet Mr Trump’s grip on the Republican party is slowly beginning to loosen. This is partly because some newly announced sceptics in the party have finally found their voices as the clock nears midnight for the Trump presidency. The most significant of these is Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, who has worked in lockstep with the Trump White House for the past four years. Recently re-elected for another six-year Senate term, he now hints that he is pleased about the impeachment and may even vote for it in a trial. It is an opportunity that he should give himself, by supporting an early scheduling.
As ever with Senator McConnell, there is political calculation at work here. But he is not alone in that. Democrats were rightly outraged at what happened on 6 January. But their grip on the House was reduced in November and the Senate is evenly balanced, so impeachment may help them leverage fresh support in next year’s midterm elections, to which many minds have now turned. Democrats have an interest in making Republican candidates choose between condemning or backing Mr Trump. Those who condemn him may face selection challenges from the right, perhaps splitting the vote; those who support him will be targeted as lackeys of a disgraced president. It could prove a win-win approach.
These have been 10 days that shook the world. Mr Trump’s incitement of an insurrectionary assault on the Capitol that led to five deaths was a terrible act. An exceptional assault on democracy had to be met with an exceptional display of resolution and retribution. The present and future safety of the republic demanded no less. It had to be a response that recognised the seriousness of what happened on 6 January and one that, at the same time, reasserted the authority of the constitution. The House of Representatives has done that. It has cleansed the stables. The response reflects well on the strength of America’s institutions and public values. The stage is now set for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to lead America towards a different kind of future – if they can do it and if the country is willing to follow.