For only the third time in history, the House of Representatives on Wednesday night dealt a president the greatest punishment in its constitutional arsenal. The stain of impeachment will follow Donald Trump to his grave and be noted long after he’s gone.
But in one sense, Trump won.
Wednesday’s 10-hour impeachment debate on the House floor and the party-line vote that followed proved that Trump’s multiyear campaign against the truth — 15,000 lies and counting — has succeeded. Republicans, united, didn’t spend much time defending Trump on the (unfavorable) merits. Instead, in an appalling spectacle of mass projection, they took turns accusing Democrats of the very offenses Trump committed — with Trumpian language and disregard for reality.
Democrats are the ones, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, said, who committed a “stunning abuse of power.” Democrats are the ones, Rep. Tom Rice, R-South Carolina, said, who “colluded with Russia and Ukraine.” Democrats are the ones, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said, who engaged in “the largest and most massive coverup of such a list of crimes against our country.” Democrats are the ones, Rep. Peter King, R-New York, said, who committed an “assault on the Constitution.” Democrats are the ones, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Michigan, said, who are “interfering in America’s election.” Democrats are the ones, Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kansas, said, who “have dangerously shattered precedents.”
It was as though Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson had taken over the House floor. Even during the most solemn constitutional ritual, Republicans were auditioning for an audience of one — and outbidding each other with conspiracy theories in hopes of scoring a favorable tweet from the boss.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Louisiana, said Democrats are “insidious forces which threaten our republic” with “betrayal.” This “threat from within,” he said, did “conspire to overthrow President Trump.”
Republicans on the floor applauded.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, accused Democrats of pursuing impeachment to conceal “Ukraine’s interference into the U.S. election in 2016” — earning Gohmert a rebuke from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, for spouting this false Russian propaganda.
It was all a triumph for alternative facts, for Russian dezinformatsiya, for Fox News and for social media toxicity.
The losers aren’t the Democrats — the public remains as split as before — but democracy. Just as after the Mueller report, Trump will only grow more emboldened in breaking the legal constraints on his presidency.
Trump, and Republicans, succeeded in making impeachment just another political fight. (“They don’t just hate Donald Trump, they hate the 63 million Americans who voted for this president.”) As such, Wednesday felt oddly routine at the Capitol. Only a few dozen lawmakers watched most of the debate. Outside, a few hundred rallied for impeachment; a lone figure dressed as Santa Claus rallied against. There was little of the fire that greeted Obamacare’s passage in 2010.
To look down from the gallery was to see a House divided: almost all white men on the Republican side, a mosaic of color and gender on the Democratic side. Rep. Justin Amash, I-Michigan, forced to leave the GOP because he supported impeachment, sat with the Democrats; New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, about to leave the Democratic Party because he opposes impeachment, hobnobbed on the Republican side with new colleague Steve King.
The Rev. Patrick Conroy, the House chaplain, prayed for “wisdom and discernment.” But it wasn’t to be found. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Georgia, compared Democrats unfavorably to Pontius Pilate. Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pennsylvania, likened Democrats to those who killed Jesus (“they know not what they do”). Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pennsylvania, likened impeachment to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, repeated the same misquote of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — three times.
Democrats, in response, kept repeating the evidence. “The president withheld congressionally approved military aid to a country under siege to extract a personal political favor. That’s a cold hard fact,” Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern said.
But Republicans met hard facts with protests (they began by forcing a vote to adjourn and ended by refusing to use their electronic voting cards), intermittent and then frequent heckling, booing and jeering, maligning of Democrats’ motives, demands for Adam Schiff’s indictment and Pelosi’s expulsion, and hours of Trumpian insults directed at Democrats: Phony. Fraudulent. Socialist. Stalinist. McCarthy(ism). Sham. Witch-hunt. Coup. Kangaroo court. Illegitimate. Hit job.
And Trump chimed in on Twitter with more of the same — “ATROCIOUS LIES . . . ASSAULT ON AMERICA” — before heading to a campaign rally.
History will note that at 8:24 p.m. Wednesday, the People’s House impeached Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors. The punishment was necessary and just. But though Trump stands rebuked, the Republicans’ ugly defense of an unrepentant offender shows that Trumpism has prevailed.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @Milbank.