By Nikhila Natarajan
In a historic rebuke, Donald John Trump became the first president in the 244-year history of the United States to have been impeached twice. On 13 January 2021, Trump was charged with “incitement of insurrection” over the deadly siege of the US Capitol a week ago as his presidency hurtles towards a stunning collapse. There’s much to process here and many firsts, but let’s look at it through three dominant lenses.
Final tally: 232-197
Only 10 out of 211 Republicans voted to impeach Trump. At one level, it shows the sway Trump still holds; it also tells us the dam broke. When Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the most unsentimental Republican in the chamber, said he was “pleased” with the impeachment article, the ground beneath Trump opened. What seemed impossible a year ago seemed within reach—that enough Republican senators might defy Trump and vote to remove him during a trial. Those Republicans who voted to impeach in the House included political heavyweights like Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, whose father Dick Cheney served as vice president under George W Bush. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” said Cheney. The final 232-197 tally was a stark departure from Trump’s first impeachment, which played out along partisan lines. Action now shifts to the Senate but not immediately. McConnell, who has tolerated a lot of Trump tantrums over the last four years to get the political deliverables he wanted, is said to be fed up with Trump and is keen to sideline him. If he votes to convict in the Senate trial, the possibility of a required two thirds majority to convict Trump becomes more real than at any other time. The trial won’t happen until Trump is already out of office, but the outcome could still prevent him from running for president again.
Another first. For the first time in the last four years, Trump’s thumb could do nothing but zap the TV remote while he was getting impeached, barely a mile away. With his Twitter megaphone banned, Trump sat in his private dining room and stewed as history unfolded on the world’s screens. An American president who kept ranting about content moderation got de-platformed and this marked a transformational moment for the relationship between the tech industry, the digital public square and reactive public policy—which is what we’ve seen so far from online platforms. When Trump showed up on a video many hours after the vote, it was muted, teleprompter fare, geared to deflect from legal exposure for inciting a mob to storm the US Capitol on 6 January. Before that siege, Trump’s legal peril centred around cases in New York. Now, in just one week, Trump has escalated his dangers to a whole new level. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has already opened 170 cases and warned of hundreds more. They did not mention Trump but they did say that they are poring over 100,000 pieces of digital media to tie all the pieces together. Chilling stuff.
Finally, the visual elements of the second House impeachment vote against Trump were inescapable metaphors for the Trump era. Hundreds of National Guard members slept on the vast marble floors of the US Capitol, where awed visitors once roamed. Seven feet tall wire mesh fencing has been erected almost overnight across the Capitol grounds; the whole place has the look of an urban war scene, reminding us all how we got here. Trump has constantly pinned his appeal on shows of military strength, the construction of a “big, beautiful wall” and urged his generals to “dominate the streets”; he has tear gassed peaceful crowds outside his home and wrapped the White House grounds with extra fencing. “Fight like hell”, he told his extremist base, saying that they would otherwise lose their country. One week later, five people are dead because of that pro-Trump mob and hundreds of law enforcement officers are in Trump’s backyard to protect Americans from Trump-incited violence. Trump is watching the show on TV, seething.