CONGRESS CALLED what it did on December 18th “debating” a resolution to impeach Donald Trump. But there was more bluster than argument. No opinion was unaired, and no minds were changed. The vote that came shortly after 8pm was utterly predictable. Every Democrat save two—Jeff Van Drew, a freshman from New Jersey soon to switch parties; and Collin Peterson, who represents a conservative, rural district in western Minnesota—voted in favour of both articles of impeachment. A third, Jared Golden, from Maine’s independent and enormous Second District, voted for the first article, which accuses Mr Trump of abusing his power, but not the second: obstruction of Congress. Every Republican voted against (Justin Amash, the lone conservative to favour impeachment, is an Independent, having left the Republican party last July).
Donald Trump joins Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton as the only presidents to be impeached. Like them, he will probably be acquitted by the Senate—but also like them, his legacy is now tarnished. After the votes passed, the Democrats threatened to applaud; Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, restrained them, holding up a hand with an expression that could have frozen water running down a mountain.
At a rally last night, Mr Trump called impeachment “a political suicide march” for Democrats. And indeed, some fear that acquittal will embolden him, letting him enter next year’s presidential-election campaign with a sword no longer hanging over his head. Others have argued in favour of extending the process so that courts might be able to wring testimony from reluctant witnesses such as John Bolton, a former national security adviser, and Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff. But hearing more witnesses would probably have changed few minds.
During yesterday’s debate, numerous Republicans warned that Democrats risked lowering the bar to impeachment—that it could become just another tactic deployed in Washington’s partisan warfare. That certainly is a risk, but multiple impeachment resolutions have been brought against most presidents since Ronald Reagan. That none has made it out of committee except against Presidents Clinton and Trump suggests that behaviour does matter. And failing to impeach Mr Trump would have invited future presidential candidates to solicit foreign help in elections, and, more broadly, to twist policy for their personal political benefit.
So Democrats faced an unenviable choice, though the egregiousness of Mr Trump’s actions made it somewhat easier. As one representative, Terri Sewell, put it, “No one comes to Congress to impeach a president. However, the President has given this Congress no choice.” Can anyone imagine Republicans failing to impeach President Hillary Clinton had she asked an embattled ally to manufacture dirt on a potential political rival? Republicans also argued that Democrats had wanted to impeach the president from the time he took office—an oddly inconsequential argument that does not answer the specific charges levelled against Mr Trump.
It was also among the more restrained arguments offered by Congressional Republicans. Steve King, a Republican representing Iowa, evoked a bizarre conspiracy involving Barack Obama, Ms Clinton, Peter Strzok (a former FBI agent), Joe Biden and Ukraine. Louie Gohmert appeared to accuse Ukraine of invading Georgia. Brian Babin warned that Democrats would “make all future elections invalid…[and] believe they are entitled to rule us.” Barry Loudermilk opined that “Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than Democrats afforded this president and this process.” In fact, setting aside the implicit comparison of Mr Trump to the Messiah, Democrats have solicited testimony from Mr Trump, who will be able to defend himself at trial early next year.
Mike Rogers called impeachment a “coup”, inviting contempt for what is in fact a constitutional remedy for severe violations of the public trust. Numerous Republicans accused Democrats of thwarting the “will of the people” by impeaching a duly elected president. But being elected is not a defence against impeachment, it is a precondition: people who are not elected presidents can be prosecuted. Were Mr Trump to be removed, a Republican (Mike Pence) would still be president, and all the judges he appointed would remain in office. Moreover, relying on “the will of the people” as a defence is an odd tactic for supporters of a president who lost the popular vote by 3m and led his party to a drubbing in last year’s mid-term elections.
Yet ahead of next year’s presidential poll, Mr Trump remains wildly popular among Republicans. Most incumbent presidents get re-elected, especially when the economy is doing well. As Democrats in the House were voting to impeach him, thousands of his supporters waited for hours in frigid weather for him to speak at his rally in Michigan—a state he won, the first Republican presidential candidate to do so since 1988.
But Mr Trump does seem rattled. The night before the vote, he sent a furious, six-page letter to Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. His press secretary insisted, during the House debate, that he was working too hard to pay much attention to the proceedings. But soon afterwards he launched an all-caps tweet deriding the “ATROCIOUS LIES BY THE RADICAL LEFT, DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS.” Much of his rally speech centred on his impeachment grievances.
He will have an easier time in the Senate, where Republicans are in the majority. Roughly half of America favours impeachment, though the geographic distribution of support favours Republicans. Most states do not have a majority in favour of impeachment. So Republican senators have no electoral incentive to break with Mr Trump, who prizes personal loyalty above all else.
Lindsay Graham, one of Mr Trump’s staunchest Senate allies, vowed to “do everything I can to make this die quickly.” Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in the upper house, said that in everything he does during the process he is co-ordinating with the White House counsel. He appears to favour a quick trial, and he sets the rules. But after the vote Ms Pelosi signalled that she may delay transmitting the impeachment articles until she is satisfied with those rules. That might allow Democrats to continue gathering evidence and pressing their cases in court.
By the time next year that Democrats have chosen a presidential nominee and the election campaign begins in earnest, Mr Trump’s acquittal will probably be several months in the past. In a news cycle as relentless and vertiginous as the one his administration has created, that is tantamount to ancient history. How it will affect the election remains unclear. No president has run for re-election after being impeached. Nobody has run against an impeached president. Congress heads home for Christmas like the rest of America: unsettled, uncertain and deeply divided.