Updated Feb 5, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Senate acquits Trump

Trump at a White House meeting in December. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Senate has acquitted President Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The big picture: This is the ending that was expected all along, but the way the Senate trial ended — with nearly every Republican declining to pursue new information about Trump's Ukraine activities — has raised alarms about the growth of presidential power and the refusal of Congress to stop it.

By the numbers: Every Democrat voted to convict Trump, with Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah — the only Republican to vote for conviction — voting with them on abuse of power.

  • Abuse of power: 48-52
  • Obstruction of Congress: 47-53

By bringing the trial to such a quick end without calling witnesses — even as new revelations about Trump's activities emerged on a near-daily basis — the Senate made it easier for Trump and future presidents to do whatever they want as long as they have enough allies in Congress, presidential historians and congressional experts say.

  • "This opens the door for not only President Trump but future presidents to use the vast powers of the federal government against political targets," said Ken Hughes, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center.
  • Justin Rood, director of the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the Project on Government Oversight, said the acquittal vote will "forcefully reduce Congress' power to its lowest point in modern history. And it virtually ensures it will stay there for a generation."
  • "It will be a long, difficult, grueling fight for both chambers to regain powers they once had," said Rood, who worked as an investigator for former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.

One of the biggest concerns is that Trump was able to stall Congress successfully, not just on witnesses with direct knowledge of what happened, but on documents that could have provided more detailed evidence.

  • That means Trump would be an example of "stonewalling Congress with legal impunity," said Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on executive power. But the ultimate fallout is still to be determined, Shane said — because "if Trump loses in November or the Democrats retake Senate control, the precedent of 'acquittal' would become ambiguous."

The other side: Retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, whose legacy will now be shaped in part by his decision to block witnesses in the Senate trial despite stating that he thinks the president "did it," told Axios he disagrees with the experts.

  • Instead, he thinks Trump's acquittal sends a message to the House of Representatives: "Don't send us half-baked, partisan impeachments," Alexander said.
  • "If we allow the establishment of a weapon of perpetual impeachment, it would destabilize the presidency, it would bring business in the Senate to a halt, and it would make the House of Representatives much more powerful than the Constitution imagined."
  • Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana maintained Congress still has an oversight role: "Does anybody think that if the president proposed something that would be untoward, his advisers would not push back vigorously?"
  • When reminded that Trump's advisers didn't push back vigorously, Cassidy said: "I’m using future tense, OK? If people think that there's gonna be oversight, they tend to mind P's and Q’s.”

The bottom line: Trump's trial will serve as a precedent for future impeachments — and by Democrats' own admission, the impeachment effort, which they knew would fail in the Senate, will have a permanent impact on the power of congressional oversight.

  • "His continuing obstruction is a threat to the oversight and investigatory powers of the House and Senate, and if left unaddressed, will permanently and dangerously alter the balance of power," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead House impeachment manager, said during his closing arguments on Monday.
  • "What are the odds if left in office that he will continue trying to cheat? I will tell you: 100%," Schiff said. "If you have found him guilty and you do not remove him from office, he will continue trying to cheat in the election until he succeeds. Then what shall you say?"

What to watch: Just because the impeachment trial has ended does not mean that the bitter debate over whether Trump's actions toward Ukraine were justified dies with it.

  • Some Democrats have signaled a desire to continue investigating Trump and pushing for more information from key aides, while some Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, are just as hungry for Hunter Biden's blood.

Axios' David Nather and Margaret Talev contributed to this story.

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