From government office buildings to music stores to fast food restaurants, the U.S. Senate acquittal of impeached President Donald J. Trump kept local residents talking Wednesday night.
In downtown Charlottesville, two dozen residents huddled under umbrellas on the sidewalk outside of the Albemarle County Office Building on McIntire Road as a cold rain fell. Their handwritten signs threw shame at the Senate as evening traffic passed by, occasionally splashing them.
From Washington, D.C., Virginia Congressmen explained their votes related to the impeachment.
“It is the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to uphold the bedrock American principle that no one is above the law, not even the president and especially not the president,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, on his Twitter account.
U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-5th, said he believes the impeachment process was a Democratic effort to reverse the 2016 election.
“We do not live in a country where politicians can overturn an election that upsets them,” Riggleman said on his Twitter page. “I hope the country can move past this process and Congress can go back to finding solutions for the American people.”
“An acquittal is not exoneration,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, wrote on his Twitter account. “The refusal to allow witnesses and documents — to engineer a sham rather than a trial — will put an asterisk by today in the history books.”
Across the area, people openly discussed the vote. Citing potential blowback from friends, family and coworkers, they uniformly declined to be identified when asked their opinion of the proceedings.
Witch hunt, sham, embarrassment and ‘a crock’ were common adjectives bandied about.
“I think people’s opinions didn’t change one bit,” said one man who identified himself as Bobo. “I don’t think what Trump did was right, but I can’t say it was illegal. If that’s the case all presidents would be impeached. Everything we do with foreign countries is about getting them to do what we want.”
“I think [Trump’s] a disgrace and so is the Senate,” said a man who identified himself as Jimmy.
Trump, others noted, is not the first president to be impeached in modern history. Bill Clinton was impeached 21 years ago for perjury and obstruction of justice related to his testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him and testimony in which he denied having sex with a White House intern.
He, too, was acquitted by the Senate in a party-line vote.
Bob Gibson, who for more than a decade covered state and national politics for the Daily Progress, said the two cases are quite different.
“One was about personal behavior and lying about office sex,” Gibson said. “The other was about using the office to extract a favor or two from a vulnerable foreign ally for personal political gain. Congress didn’t handle either case very well.”
Although he was never formally impeached, President Richard M. Nixon also faced the specter of Congressional ouster, said Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.
“Nixon shouldn’t be left out because, unlike Clinton and Trump, he really would have been ousted by the Senate,” Sabato said. “They had more than enough votes to take away the presidency in 1974, and Barry Goldwater personally delivered that message to Nixon in the White House, along with some of his Senate colleagues.”
That message led to Nixon’s resignation.
Sabato said whether Trump’s impeachment would encourage future efforts at impeachment or discourage them is unknown.
“On the one hand, you could say impeachment is now normalized and we can expect it to happen or be threatened more often,” he said. “On the other hand, both the Clinton and Trump impeachments didn’t succeed. Maybe that discourages future impeachers.”
Sabato also noted that, rather than hinder a sitting president, impeachment seems to strengthen their influence.
“Clinton and the Democrats were strengthened by impeachment; Democrats picked up congressional seats in both 1998 and 2000,” he said. “It’s too soon to know precisely, but Trump appears to be gaining a few points in the polls, mostly because Republicans and conservative independents are rallying around him.”
Sabato noted that poll figures regarding Trump’s performance in office bring into focus the sharp division in the American electorate.
“Trump’s job approval among Republicans is now 94%, incredibly high. He has fallen to 7% among Democrats, incredibly low,” he said. “And some people claim we’re not polarized.”