Politicians won and the public lost in the impeachment of Donald Trump

After the impeachment acquittal of President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE, every network and newspaper rushed forward with “winners and losers” stories. Some said Trump was the ultimate winner while others said he won nothing in a trial that was fixed. Some said House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP increasingly balks at calling Jan. 6 an insurrection Overnight Energy: Lake Mead's decline points to scary water future in West | White House leads opposition to raising gas tax | Biden taps ex-New Mexico lawmaker for USDA post Trump against boycotting Beijing Olympics in 2022 MORE triumphed while others declared her utterly undone by a sham House investigation. It is all part of the same zero sum construct. For one to win, the other must lose to the same degree. But politics is not a zero sum game. Not only did all sides win, they all seemed to work toward the same result of acquittal.

For years, Pelosi openly opposed impeaching Trump. As I have written previously, the last thing she wanted was to remove Trump and to bring about a Pence administration. She wanted Trump wounded but alive in 2020. Pelosi had two additional goals. First, Democratic voters became increasingly impatient with Democratic lawmakers professing a desire to impeach Trump without actually doing so. This included a heavy pitch in the 2018 midterm elections that had delivered the House to Democrats.

Voters started to see that they were being played, so a failed attempt was the best alternative. Bring an impeachment that was guaranteed to lose with the shortest investigation, thinnest record, and narrowest grounds. Second, it was important to convince voters that the failure was entirely due to Senate Republicans. By rushing the vote before Christmas, Pelosi relied on Senate Republicans to block witnesses so that the House could blame them. History was on her side, since Democrats voted together to both block key witnesses and a full trial during the Clinton impeachment.


It did not matter that a rushed impeachment made no sense. In my House testimony, I asked why Democrats would rush forward with an incomplete record when a couple months would dramatically strengthen their case with witnesses and court orders. Democrats simply declared there was no time to waste in the House vote for impeachment. Then they did nothing for a month, as Pelosi engaged in the ridiculous pretense of holding the articles to coerce senators into calling witnesses and holding a fair trial.

It was transparently contrived, since Pelosi was destroying the rationale for a rushed impeachment vote. But Democratic voters bought it, blamed Senate Republicans, and Pelosi won. She was able to keep Trump in office while firing up the Democratic base for the 2020 election. Impeachment leaders such as House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff also hit record levels of contributions for fighting a battle he was always meant to lose.

A failed impeachment proved even more beneficial to Trump. As shown when he triumphantly held up the Washington Post with the front page headline of his acquittal, impeachment enabled him to claim victory over a “deep state” and Democratic conspiracy. He was also able to highlight the dubious business dealings of Hunter Biden. While Senate Democrats opposed his testimony at the trial, Trump told voters they should get the whole story. A Hill Harris poll found that 54 percent of independents and 40 percent of Democrats agreed that his business dealings in Ukraine are “an important campaign issue that should be discussed” by candidates.

Thus, Trump also won. His popularity reached a record level at 49 percent, according to Gallup, better than President Obama at this stage during his first term, even without an impeachment. The trial turbocharged Trump support, with a breathtaking 94 percent popularity among Republicans. It also proved a windfall for fundraising. The Republican National Committee raked in $117 million online from last fall through this week and picked up one million new donors. Trump campaign coffers swelled to $103 million, compared to less than $85 million total for the Democratic candidates.

The greatest winner was the media. Despite his criticism, Trump has saved the industry from economic freefall. The cable networks have profited by airing unrelenting attacks on him. He is the greatest boon for the business since the invention of the printing press. During a rare moment of honesty from a television executive, Jeff Zucker said two years ago, “We have seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.” The very notion of replacing the scurrilous Trump with the staid Pence would be enough to push Zucker into the fetal position.


The same goes for Fox News. While long the dominant cable network, it posted unrivaled ratings during the Senate trial, beating not just its cable competitors but the networks. What the media needed was a heated but failed trial that kept Trump in office, still fueling headlines. Echo chamber journalism requires angry readers and viewers who find solace in hearing one side of the Trump saga. For the media, replacing Trump with Pence would be like jumping from a Mardi Gras parade to a Gregorian chant.

There were also some individual beneficiaries, but none come close to former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonUS drops lawsuit, closes probe over Bolton book John Bolton: Biden-Putin meeting 'premature' Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process MORE. He used impeachment to shamelessly promote his book with tweets like, “For the backstory, stay tuned.” Whereas his former aides came forward at personal risk to defy the administration, including some who have now been fired from the White House, Bolton insisted on receiving a subpoena while careening between threatening litigation and allowing his compelled testimony.

Rather than disclosing any information he had to share, the Senate was hit by lethally timed leaks from his book draft. When the House asked him to just submit an affidavit before the trial ended, Bolton reportedly refused. It left many suspicious of his motives, since one could not sell an affidavit on Amazon. It did not matter that the republic was in crisis. The only events that would have been catastrophic for Bolton would have been the court compelling him to testify for free or Trump being removed from office.

There is one set of losers in all of this, and that is the public. American voters remain the greatest chumps the world has known. Both parties continue to play them in scam after scam, filling their dressers with the political equivalent of $5 “solid gold” watches. Yet the public continues coming back for more, trained to rage with the same Pavlovian bell used every election. While the two political parties, the media, and Bolton got what they each wanted, the public might have gotten what it deserves.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law for George Washington University and served as the last lead counsel during a Senate impeachment trial. He testified as a witness expert in the House Judiciary Committee hearing during the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.