Former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate for inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Feb. 13. Trump is the only president in American history to be impeached twice in one term, and is the fourth presidential impeachment trial in the history of the United States.
“In the immediate term, for former President Trump, it’s going to be seen as a victory,” journalism professor Michael Park said. “Long-term, he’s always going to have that legacy of being impeached twice.”
The final vote count was 57 to 43, resulting in Trump’s acquittal. In order to deliver a conviction, the Senate would have needed 10 additional votes.
Trump’s impeachment trial made history when seven Republican Senators voted to convict Trump — the highest bipartisan support in any of the four impeachment proceedings.
The impeachment trial began on Feb. 9 and lasted only four days, making it the shortest impeachment trial involving a president. No other impeachment of a U.S. president has occurred after the president was no longer in office.
Environmental engineering senior Colin Barger said they were disappointed to see the Senate vote to acquit Trump.
“It’s definitely a huge hit to [democracy] at least,” they said. “I don’t have any trust in it anymore.”
They said letting Trump’s encouragement of the insurrection go unpunished makes the United States look foolish. According to Barger, the United States serves as a symbol of democracy, yet Trump has made a mockery out of U.S. politics.
Barger suspects that the Republican Party is divided right now, and said that perhaps these events show a need to move away from a two-party system and towards something more representative.
“Having more of a representative system might be a good thing,” they said. “I’d hate for [Republican] voices to be trampled on just because some extremists have taken over their party.”
Cal Poly agricultural management systems graduate Wyatt Smith, however, thought the acquittal was the best possible outcome of the trial, and said the second impeachment process was a waste of time and taxpayer dollars.
“It was simply a ploy to distract the American people from the current administration,” Smith wrote in an email to Mustang News.
Smith wrote that Trump had a positive impact on the lives of the American people, and he believes the impeachment hearings caused more division among the public.
Journalism Professor Michael Park said impeachment is a political process where members of Congress can decide if they want to fire a public official.
“Primarily it is a political mechanism and it’s very different from what we think of as a criminal trial,” he said.
Park said criminal trials require a standard of proof to convict the accused, whereas an impeachment trial does not.
The punishment of each trial differs, too. If convicted, Trump would not have faced jail time or criminal punishment. If convicted in office, Trump would have been removed. If convicted out of office, the Senate could have voted on a measure to bar Trump from running for office in the future.
“They’re not going to face life in prison or the death penalty,” Park said. “Essentially, it’s going to be a stain on their legacy.”
However, Park said Trump was acquitted likely due to partisanship involved in an impeachment trial.
“It’s an understatement to say that these are not your typical, impartial jurors,” Park said. “We’re talking about senators who are politically elected.”
Incitement, which is speech that leads another person to commit a crime or act of violence, was declared unprotected speech in 1969 in the case of Brandenburg v. Ohio.
Trump will still be vulnerable to criminal and civil action in both state and federal courts, according to Park. These cases could exhaust the time, energy and money needed for a campaign if Trump decides to run for office in 2024.
Park said that Trump’s maintained base functions as a “cult of personality.” This means that Trump’s supporters are loyal to a person, rather than a party or ideology.
“The loyalty really is to a political figure as opposed to constitutional values,” he said.
With this support and an acquittal by the Senate, Trump can use this short-term political victory as a springboard to strengthen his message that the impeachment was a “witch hunt,” according to Park.
Political science professor Shelley Hurt said that the attack on the Capitol was an attack on democracy, and is a bipartisan concern.
“He resorted to violence instead of politics,” Hurt said. “Cal Poly students need to understand how deeply serious that is.”
Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to acquit, yet delivered remarks that condemned the former President for his involvement in the insurrection.
“[Senator Mitch McConnell] took the exact position of the House managers, yet voted to acquit. So that really raises some fundamental questions about the future of the Republican party,” Hurt said.
Hurt said that as of now, American democracy does not allow for a political system with more than two major parties.
“It is incumbent that both parties are healthy and robust and have broad coalitions,” she said. “‘If [the Republican party] is in a crisis, what does that mean for American democracy?’ That’s my concern.”
Hurt thinks that the Senate should have been able to hold impeachment hearings and simultaneously complete other duties during President Biden’s first 100 days in office.
“There was all this false concern about whether or not the Senate could chew gum and walk at the same time,” she said.
Hurt criticized the lack of live witnesses at the the trial, and thought the trial happened too quickly.
Political science senior and Cal Poly Democrats Co-President Rob Moore expected the Senate would vote to acquit Trump. Although he would have liked to see a conviction, he appreciated the speed of the trial.
“I appreciate that it is over as quickly as it is so we can move on,” Moore said.