Trump impeachment: Fears that Senate acquittal will give presidents far more power

Democrats dealt stinging defeat as Schumer warns of an 'end of presidential accountability'

Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz uses Middle East Peace Plan to explain quid pro quos during impeachment hearing

The Senate acquitted Donald Trump, only the third president to be impeached, on charges he abused his power and unjustly stonewalled Congress, clearing him to focus on a bare-knuckle re-election campaign and raising new questions about the powers of his office.

Expansive arguments from his made-for-television legal team about presidential powers and sometimes-contradictory defences of the New York real estate executive and former reality television star ultimately won the day. House Democrats' warnings that an acquittal verdict could cause Mr Trump to repeat what they described was an attempt to "shake down" another world leader in order to "steal" an American election failed to sway Republican senator-jurists.

Mr Trump's presidency, which has had a Teflon-like quality and endured one self-inflicted wound after another, will continue as he survived the most serious rebuke House Democrats could hand down. As Democrats grapple with their defeat at the hands of Republican senators who again backed a man most of them just a few years ago condemned, Mr Trump's approval rating has been climbing and they have no clear nominee with a plan to unite their party's factions and defeat him in November.

In a remarkable statement that echoed many of his Republican mates, retiring Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said he would effectively kill any motion to call new witnesses. But he also plainly stated his and other Republican jurists' view that the House Democratic impeachment managers had proven their case.

In short, Mr Alexander told the world he – and other GOP senator-jurists – believe Mr Trump tried to carry out what House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff called a "shakedown" of Ukraine's new and inexperienced president.

"There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution's high bar for an impeachable offence," he said. "There is no need for more evidence to prove that the president asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter; he said this on television on October 3, 2019, and during his July 25, 2019, telephone call with the president of Ukraine."

Lawmakers and legal scholars already are debating the long-term implications of Mr Trump's acquittal. That's largely because of arguments made by Alan Dershowitz, a celebrity law professor the president recruited after relishing his anti-impeachment cable news appearances.

"If the president does something that he thinks will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment," Mr Dershowitz, Harvard University professor, told senators. He was responding to a question from GOP Texas Senator Ted Cruz about whether a president ordering a quid pro quo would ever be legally appropriate. The question's premise also touched on the legality if such an order by a sitting president was made with Election Day in mind.

"Every public official I know believes that his election is in the public interest," Mr Dershowitz replied. "Mostly, you're right."

That raised alarms among Democrats and some legal scholars, who warn the acquittal verdict will make Dershowitz's view of presidential powers part of American legal canon. So, too, did the defence team's contention – again, via Dershowitz – that Mr Trump might have acted unjustly, but because he is the president, those actions fail to meet the high standards of impeachment and removal.

That could mean that if another candidate in Mr Trump's harsh populist mold wins the presidency down the line, "many of the rails are now off – he system is now much easier to exploit," said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina.

Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz uses Middle East Peace Plan to explain quid pro quos during impeachment hearing

"It is a reminder that in a democracy that runs more on norms than rules, the character of the people occupying the institutions is centrally important," Mr Hetherington said.

At one point late on the defence team's first day of making its case, the Harvard law professor claimed nothing in Mr Trump's actions toward Ukraine's new president – including asking him to "do us a favour though" after they had just discussed a $391m military aid package the latter needed to guard against Russia – "would by itself constitute an abuse of power".

"A quid pro quo alone," Dershowitz added, "is not the basis for an abuse of power." Some warn Dershowitz, validated by GOP senators, has made it legally and politically acceptable for Mr Trump and future presidents to use taxpayer-funded military equipment to get foreign leaders to carry out what House Democrats called the "dirty work" of finding dirt on their US political rivals.

"We saw the president continue to move the goalposts. You know, at first, they're saying, 'There is no quid pro quo.' Then they're saying that the quid pro quo is unimpeachable," said Congressman Jason Crow, one of the House Democrats' impeachment managers.

"Then when it becomes clear to everyone in that room and the American people that what the president did was wrong and he did it, they're just saying, 'Move on because what the president does is just presumptively the right thing," Crow added.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said if the defence team's arguments become accepted legally, it also could stop lawmakers not of a president's party from investigating him or her – and "spell the end of presidential accountability as we know it".

William Galston, who worked in the Bill Clinton White House, said the verdict might lead "many Americans to conclude that Trump's theory of the unfettered presidency is basically correct," adding: "This would represent a dangerous turning point for our constitutional system."

But Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel, pushed back, saying their case merely was about defending their client against a flawed case on which House Democrats' prosecution was built.

Ted Cruz and other Republican senators took a much different view of Dershowitz's legal theories. The Texas lawmaker, a fierce Trump critic-turned-loyalist, told reporters the Harvard professor laid out a "powerful argument".

"Professor Dershowitz rightly pointed out that we engage in quid pro quo's all the time," Mr Cruz said of US foreign policy. "That's not the question. The question is whether the president committed a high crime or misdemeanour and if he's asking for investigations into possible corruption when there is real and credible evidence that there might be corruption, that is not an impeachable offence.

Alan Dershowitz says abuse of power is not impeachable

Mr Trump's views on presidential powers were given a boost when GOP senators opted against hearing from witnesses that might have given them pause about how the Oval Office incumbent uses those authorities.

"If this trial wraps up in the next 24 to 48 hours without witnesses, he can say, 'I was acquitted,' but he can't say, 'I was exonerated," Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said. "We're having no witnesses in the Senate, ad that's never happened before. ... I opposed impeachment for the last two-and-a-half years ... The problem with the Ukraine business ism it appears anyway, that it was the president's effort to affect the upcoming election.

"The question is: Is the election a check if the election itself is in play from the point of view of the president's own actions?" King asked rhetorically.

That answer is just over nine months away. That's when voters will head to the polls and decide whether Mr Trump deserves a second term after being impeached and overseeing the most chaotic and unpredictable presidential terms in American history.

As Democrats reel from their latest defeat to a man who largely has bested them since 2016, Mr Trump already has pivoted into re-election mode – complete with more of his signature bold campaign-trail promises.

"You're going to make a lot of money," he told farmers in Iowa at a political rally. "They (other politicians) sold you out. ... But now the era of economic surrender is over. ... Wait until the end of next year. The growth will be astronomical."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in