One of the lessons of former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment proceedings is that convicting a president is virtually impossible.
The jury in Trump’s impeachment trial, the 100 men and women who make up the Senate, were not only witnesses to the violent insurrection Trump was charged with inciting but were also some of the primary victims of Trump’s alleged crime. The evidence presented at Trump’s trial suggests that he refused to help senators who were being pursued by rioters, including those whose chants suggested they could have quickly become a lynch mob.
And yet, in the end, only seven of the 17 Republicans necessary to convict Trump voted to do so.
There are very good reasons why a supermajority vote is required for such a conviction. A federal official who is impeached and convicted may be permanently disqualified from holding office. So if the threshold for conviction were too low, a vengeful political party could potentially impeach everyone in their rival party who has ever held federal office, and permanently strip them of their ability to hold office.
But it also means that a minority of Americans receive an outsize say in who should and should not be convicted.
This is the case because the Senate is structurally biased toward Republicans. Small red states like Wyoming receive the same number of senators as large blue states like California, even though California has 68 times as many people as Wyoming. Although the current Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the Democratic half represents nearly 42 million more people than the Republican half.
The Senate’s Republican bias becomes even more striking when you look at Trump’s second impeachment vote. The 57 senators who voted to convict Trump represent about 202 million people, while the 43 senators who voted to acquit represent only about 125 million. In total, the bloc of senators who voted to convict Trump represents 76,704,798 more people than the bloc that voted “not guilty.”
I derived these numbers by using 2019 population estimates from the United States Census Bureau. In each state where both senators voted the same way, I allocated the state’s entire population to either “guilty” or “not guilty.” In states with split delegations, I allocated half of the state’s population to each outcome. You can check my work using this spreadsheet.
For what it’s worth, these numbers suggest that Trump still would have been acquitted even if US senators were chosen in free and fair elections where every vote counts equally. While the bloc of senators who voted to convict represent over 200 million people, that’s a little less than 62 percent of the total population — or less than the two-thirds majority necessary to convict someone in an impeachment trial.
That fact, much like Trump’s second impeachment itself, is a monument to the near insurmountability of the 67-vote threshold applied to presidential impeachments.
All that said, the fact remains that seven senators of Trump’s own party broke with him on this important vote. That’s a historic occasion.
Until Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2020, no senator had ever voted to convict a president of the same party in all of American history — Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) was the only Republican who voted for conviction the first time around. Now seven Republicans have deemed Trump unfit for service.
But seven isn’t enough. The high threshold for a conviction also means that some guilty officials will escape sanction, even if their crimes are obvious. And even if those crimes targeted the Capitol itself.