The Senate is circled with mediocrities. The busts of 20 of the first 21 vice-presidents surround the chamber and it is a grim bunch. Although the collection starts with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the quality of those enshrined drops off very quickly. Of the remaining 18, the most accomplished and gifted was likely John Calhoun. He also was perhaps the most virulent racist in the history of American politics. The others include traitors, crooks and a drunk from Staten Island. These were the figures that loomed over the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump.
Throughout the event, history and its judgment loomed over the Senate chamber. Past precedent was repeatedly cited and senators from both sides were admonished to remember how future generations would view their actions. While pundits are still taking stock of winners and losers in the short term and Trump has already celebrated his “total acquittal” in a victory event at the White House, there is one verdict yet to be rendered. In fact, deliberations have not even begun. The trial may already be slipping out of the news cycle but it has yet to face the harsh glare of history.
The final result of the impeachment trial was never in question. All along, it was clear that the final tally would be divided along partisan lines. This had been preordained by the rules set up to govern the trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held his conference firmly in line for the rules governing the trial of Bill Clinton. Those rules were designed for a presidential impeachment where, in the words of one of the House managers, former Congressman James Rogan, “the Senate was united 100-0 to make impeachment go away.”
Rogan raged at the time that it was “a sham trial” but Trent Lott, the Republican leader at the time, dismissed his concerns. “You can call it a sham trial,” recalled Rogan. “We are going to trial, the president is going call it a trial, America going to call it a trial and the history books call it a trial.”
That historical consensus may not hold for Trump’s trial. Certainly history is likely to judge that it lacked the dignity of Clinton’s impeachment, which featured urgent debate over the propriety of discussing blow jobs on the Senate floor. The trial often lacked the majesty of constitutionally mandated proceeding where Senators where transformed by the Founding Fathers into “judge-jurors.” Instead, many wandered freely, chatting with colleagues. One senator distributed fidget spinners to colleagues. Another arrived with a crossword puzzle visible upon his desk.
But there were some serious moments in the trial. The nearly three-week process was marked by impressive oratory from Adam Schiff, the lead House manager. His remarks left Democratic senators visibly moved at times. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said of Schiff’s closing speech during opening arguments “For many of us, one of the best speeches we ever heard in our life from a master.” However, his argument made little impact on Republicans sitting in the chamber although they did greatly burnish his standing among progressives nationally.
Perhaps the only speaker to make an impact throughout the trial was celebrity criminal-defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz. The octogenarian facing scrutiny for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein asserted during the question and answer period, “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” After the vote, Joe Manchin, the conservative West Virginia Democrat who was considered a possible defector, cited those remarks in explaining his decision as “one thing that moved me as much as anything.” He added that Dershowitz’s words “went through me like a knife” as “this concept that someone is better than somebody. That someone is above the law.” To Manchin, that was anti-ethical to the values he had been raised on “in a little coal-mining town.”
While Manchin was considered undecided into the final vote on acquittal, far more scrutiny attended two wavering Republicans, Lamar Alexander and Mitt Romney. The former is not running for reelection after a long accomplished political career. Before being elected to the Senate in 2002, he served two terms as Tennessee’s governor and one stint in the George H.W. Bush cabinet. His vote was considered key to the effort to allow House managers to try to call any witnesses. And Alexander decided against it, allowing Mitch McConnell to bring the trial to a speedy end.
He announced his decision in a late night statement, released after the Tennesseean left the Capitol for the night. Alexander announced that he would not support witnesses because “there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven.” However, he insisted Trump’s abuse of power did not constitute impeachable conduct. Further Alexander argued that a conviction of Trump “would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist.” The result all but ended the trial, leaving only the suspense whether a single Republican would cross party lines to convict Trump.
That Republican was Mitt Romney. His decision was announced in formal remarks on the floor of the Senate. Romney tied his vote to convict tightly to his faith in his speech, which was also accompanied by several embargoed interviews with prominent news outlets.
The verdict of history on the decisions of those two men and the impeachment trial as a whole will likely not be known for decades. By that time, many of the senators who sat in judgment for three weeks will have already been forgotten. They’ll exist as answers to trivia questions, their names will still remain on post offices and college campus buildings in their home state and perhaps even on the stationary of K Street lobbying firms. And their careers in public service will be boiled down to a simple Homeric epithet, based on a handful of key votes and decisions, as a way to jog the memory of the historians or wonks who still bother to learn their names.
In particular, for Romney and Alexander, history’s view of them will be filtered through the lens of the impeachment trial. As forgettable as any given senator may be, presidential impeachments do have a way of standing out in the historical record. It seems likely that one of the two senators will have their reputation forever burnished. The other will be consigned to the same dustbin as many of the men whose busts watch over the Senate chamber and most of those who have ever cast a vote in it.