WASHINGTON — After five months of hearings, investigations and revelations about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, a divided U.S. Senate acquitted him Wednesday of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress to aid his own reelection, bringing an acrimonious impeachment trial to its expected end.
In a pair of votes whose outcome was never in doubt, the Senate fell well short of the two-thirds margin that would have been needed to remove the 45th president. The verdicts came down — after three weeks of debate — almost entirely along party lines, with every Democrat voting “guilty” on both charges and Republicans uniformly voting “not guilty” on the obstruction of Congress charge. Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, broke with his party to judge Trump guilty of abuse of power.
It was the third impeachment trial of a president and the third acquittal in American history, and it ended the way it began: with Republicans and Democrats at odds. They disagreed over Trump’s conduct and his fitness for office, even as some members of his own party conceded the basic allegations that undergirded the charges: that he sought to pressure Ukraine to smear his political rivals.
But in a sign of the widening partisan divide testing the country and its institutions, the verdict did not promise finality, which members of both parties conceded would come only after the November election.
The president himself did not directly address his acquittal, but shortly afterward, he announced on Twitter that he would make a public statement Thursday at the White House about what he called “our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax.” He then tweeted an attack ad against Romney that called the senator a “Democrat secret asset.”
At the Capitol earlier in the day, Chief Justice John Roberts, who presided over the trial, put the question to senators shortly after 4 p.m.: “Senators how say you? Is the respondent, Donald John Trump, president of the United States guilty or not guilty?”
Seated at their mahogany desks, senators stood one by one to answer “guilty” or “not guilty” to each of the two articles of impeachment.
“It is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles,” declared Roberts, after the second article was defeated.
Democratic leaders immediately insisted the result was illegitimate, the product of a self-interested cover-up by Republicans, and promised to continue their investigations of Trump.
“The verdict of this kangaroo court will be meaningless,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader, said moments before the vote. “By refusing the facts — by refusing witnesses and documents — the Republican majority has placed a giant asterisk, the asterisk of a sham trial, next to the acquittal of President Trump, written in permanent ink.”
The president’s Republican allies excoriated Democrats for a proceeding they said had damaged the country and its institutions in the name of saving them.
“We will reject this incoherent case that comes nowhere near justifying the first presidential removal in history,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader.
Yet at a news conference after the vote, McConnell declined several times to answer reporters who asked whether he considered Trump’s actions appropriate.
“This decision has been made,” McConnell said curtly. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s in the rearview mirror.”
As expected, the tally in favor of conviction on each article fell far below the 67-vote threshold necessary for removal. The first charge was abuse of power, accusing Trump of a scheme to use the levers of government to coerce Ukraine to do his political bidding. It did not even garner a majority vote, failing on a vote of 48-52, with Romney voting with the Democrats. The second article, charging Trump with obstruction of Congress for an across-the-board blockade of House subpoenas and oversight requests, failed 47-53, strictly along party lines.
Like this one, the trials of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton also ended in acquittal — a reflection of the Constitution’s high burden for removing a chief executive.
But in a stinging rebuke of the country’s leader aimed at history, Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said that Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine was “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.” Although he voted against the second article, Romney became emotional on the Senate floor in the hours before the verdict Wednesday as he described why he deemed Trump guilty of abuse of power, calling it a matter of conscience. He was the first senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party.
“I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Romney said. “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Romney’s defection, which he announced a couple of hours before the final vote, was a stark reflection of the sweeping transformation of the Republican Party over the past eight years into one now dominated almost entirely by Trump. And it deprived the president of the monolithic Republican support he had eagerly anticipated.
Still, the White House declared victory.
“Today, the sham impeachment attempt concocted by Democrats ended in the full vindication and exoneration of President Donald J. Trump,” said Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary. “As we have said all along, he is not guilty.”
Trump’s reelection campaign moved quickly to capitalize on the moment, distributing a fundraising email declaring, “Sorry haters, I’m not going anywhere.”
Several Republican senators ultimately acknowledged the heart of the House case — that Trump undertook a concerted pressure campaign on Ukraine to secure politically beneficial investigations into his rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, using nearly $400 million in military aid as leverage.
But most argued that the conduct was not sufficiently dangerous to warrant the Senate removing a president from office for the first time in history — and certainly not with an election so near. Others dismissed Democrats’ arguments altogether, insisting their case was merely an attempt to dress up hatred for Trump and his policies as a constitutional case.
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republican swing votes who have tilted against the president in the past, both voted against conviction and removal. And two Democrats from traditionally conservative-leaning states, Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, voted to convict Trump, denying him the bipartisan acquittal he coveted.
Although the verdict was never in doubt, Democrats lobbied to expand the scope of the Senate trial to include witnesses and documents that the president refused to provide during the House inquiry, working to pressure vulnerable Republicans facing challenging reelection contests, like Collins, to join them or risk being portrayed as beholden to Trump. All but two Republicans refused, making the trial the first impeachment proceeding in American history to reach a verdict without calling witnesses.
As they closed their case, the seven Democratic House managers who prosecuted it warned that Trump would emerge only emboldened in his monarchical tendencies and that those who appeased him would be judged harshly by history. Republicans, they said, had chosen to leave the president’s future up to voters despite evidence that he had tried to cheat in the election, and would continue to do so.
Seldom used in American history, impeachment is the Constitution’s most extreme mechanism for checking a corrupt or out of control officeholder. In unsheathing it, House Democrats took on political risk that could backfire in November on their presidential nominee or their incumbents in Congress, including moderates in conservative districts and states where Trump is popular.
At least one Democrat, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, glancingly acknowledged that his vote to convict would most likely contribute to his loss this fall in deeply conservative Alabama.
“There will be so many who will simply look at what I am doing today and say it is a profile in courage,” Jones said before the vote. “It is not. It is simply a matter of right and wrong.”
For now, the impeachment of Trump appears to have evenly divided the nation. Public opinion polls suggest that even as a growing number of Americans agreed that the president most likely abused his office and acted improperly, more than a slight majority never agreed that he should be removed from office.
If Trump’s standing among the public has been hurt by the trial, it is not yet evident. To the contrary, the latest Gallup poll, released Tuesday, showed that 49% of Americans approved of his job performance — the highest figure since he took office three years ago. The same survey showed that Republicans’ image has improved markedly, with 51% viewing them favorably compared with 43% in September.
The possibility of impeachment has hung over Trump’s presidency virtually since it began. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., initially resisted it. After Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s election interference in 2016, found 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump, she said impeachment was too divisive a remedy to pursue.
Her calculations changed in September with the emergence of an anonymous CIA whistleblower complaint that accused the president of marshaling the powers of government to press Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and a theory that Democrats had colluded with Ukraine in the 2016 election. In authorizing the impeachment inquiry, Pelosi tasked the House Intelligence Committee to investigate the scheme and build a case.
Trump issued a blanket directive to all government agencies not to comply with the inquiry, robbing investigators of key witnesses and facts that could have filled out their case and ultimately giving rise to the obstruction of Congress charge.
Still, more than a dozen U.S. administration officials came forward, offering testimony in private and then in scintillating public hearings that confirmed and expanded on the whistleblower complaint. On Dec. 18, the House impeached Trump on both counts.
To protect his Senate majority as much as the presidency, McConnell promised a swift acquittal — and he delivered it. It was just 20 days from the time the articles of impeachment were first read on the Senate floor to Wednesday’s vote. By comparison, the 1999 Clinton trial lasted five weeks, and in 1868, the Senate took the better part of three months to try Johnson.
The final shift in defenses by all but the most conservative of Trump’s allies came just last week, when The New York Times reported the first in a series of stories revealing that in August Trump told Bolton, his former national security adviser, that he would not release the military aid for Ukraine until the country helped out with the investigations into the Bidens and other Democrats.
Impeachment was seriously contemplated for a president only once in the first two centuries of the American republic; it now has been so three times since the 1970s, and two of the past four presidents have been impeached.