the capitol

The Impeachment Debate Took Place in Two Parallel Universes

No surprises. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The middle aisle in the House of Representative separates two political parties, but on Wednesday it seemed to separate two parallel universes.

During the endless hours of debate in which Democrats and Republicans spoke past each other, both sides seemed to live in alternate realities. Democrats gravely repeated that Trump had violated his oath of office and that they had no other choice but to impeach him. In contrast, for Republicans, Trump was an orange hued Captain Dreyfus victimized by a grotesque partisan witch-hunt.

It was a surreal setting for what was a drama free day as Donald Trump would become the third president and the 20th person in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Not only did the overall outcome lack any suspense, even the final margin was predictable and almost entirely free of surprises — save a vote of present on both articles of impeachment from the idiosyncratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is currently mounting a gadfly campaign for the presidency.

For such an historic day, the proceedings felt more like a game show where contestants were introduced in a constant loop. Senior figures in each party acted as game show hosts doling out one minute here and two minutes there to any member who wanted to come on down. Although hundreds of members spoke in the tense room, few had anything original to say beyond the repetition of well-worn talking points. It left the House chamber with an “uncomfortable” and “eerie” feeling in the words of Representative Matt Gaetz. He noted on a normal day there were “tours, constituents and church groups hustling and bustling” around the building, but the mood Wednesday was sullen.

To many congressional Republicans, the president was an unjustly accused victim of a plot by socialists. In the words of Representative Clay Higgins, who spoke on the floor next to a map of the 2016 election, impeachment was a perfidious effort to “overthrow President Trump.” Representative Barry Loudermilk went even further and compared Trump to Jesus Christ. In his view, Pontius Pilate provided more procedural rights than Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Adam Schiff.

The hyperbole may have culminated when Representative Bill Johnson called for a moment of silent reflection “to remember the voices of the 63 million voters that the Democrats today are wanting to silence.”

Most Republicans did not even concede that Trump had committed the slightest error in the Ukraine scandal with the rare exception being Representative Chip Roy who noted that Democrats could “reasonably view” Trump’s phone call with Ukranian president Vladimir Zelensky “as less than perfect.”

In contrast, Democrats described how little choice they had but to impeach the president and how grave they thought Trump’s offenses were. Representative Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from a New Jersey swing district said “if we fail to say this is wrong, then any president will be free to ask a foreign power … to help him hurt his political enemies at home and every foreign tyrant and kleptocrat will know America’s foreign policy can be bought.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, reflecting on his nearly four decades of service in the House, said “never … did I ever expect to encounter such an obvious wrongdoing by a President of the United States.”

Others painted this as an obligation to future generations. Representative Joseph Kennedy III addressed his remarks to his children “Ellie and James” while Representative Jared Huffman spoke more broadly “to the future.”

For all the historic import of the vote, the political ramifications are likely to be relatively minimal. A former Trump aide told New York that the battle lines had long been set since the initial vote to open the impeachment inquiry. “There is no political reason for a Democrat who voted for the inquiry to vote against it in the final vote even if it is unpopular in their district,” said the former Trump aide who added there is “literally no reason for a Republican to vote for it” considering how unified the GOP is around the president.

Gaetz argued that Republicans did advance their cause on Wednesday. “We didn’t win the vote but we won the debate and we are the team gaining ground,” he told New York. The ardent Trump defender noted two Democratic defections since the initial vote on opening the inquiry; Gabbard’s present vote and the previously announced decision of Representative Jared Golden to vote against one of the two articles of impeachment.”

In contrast, Representative Steve Cohen was happy with the final vote count. “We didn’t lose hardly any Democrats.” He didn’t think there would be electoral ramifications either for red district Democrats. “Republican members will lose their seats” for the vote, said Cohen. “However, I don’t think any Democrats will lose their seats. They got elected to be a check and balance to Trump and they were a check and balance tonight.”

A senior aide to a swing district Democrat was more skeptical of the impact of the vote in 2020. Impeachment “seemed like kind of a draw politically in our district” — but that the Democratic member thought voting to impeach was the right call. The aide thought taking a sincere position was important. “I think that stuff translates. Voters can sniff that out,” said the aide.

However, regardless of what it means at the ballot box in 2020, it left Trump forever marked with what Cohen called “a Scarlet I” for impeachment as he joins Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton in the ignominious club of Presidents to be impeached.

The Impeachment Debate Took Place in Two Parallel Universes