HARRISBURG — In the end, will the trial of President Donald Trump even make a difference?
Washington was gripped for months by the impeachment inquiry and trial that ended Wednesday with Trump’s predictable and anticlimactic acquittal, after lawmakers in both parties warned their actions would reverberate for generations.
But elected officials, party activists, and voters in Pennsylvania were less certain about what it all might mean for the 2020 election in a critical swing state.
Some Democrats and Republicans said voters’ impressions of Trump, and of the conduct toward Ukraine that led to his impeachment, had been formed long before the Senate voted against removing him from office. But officials and lawmakers in both parties said voters are more focused on their daily lives, even if the trial may help motivate the most reliably partisan voters to turn out.
“On the ground, I just don’t hear people talking about it,” said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who lives in Braddock, east of Pittsburgh. “I think minds were made up a long time ago.”
“I would love Pennsylvania to move forward, because we’ve got an election to win,” Fetterman said in an interview last weekend as the state Democratic Party met for its annual convention in Harrisburg, just hours after the Republican-controlled Senate voted down a Democratic push to call witnesses in the trial. “And we’re going to be running against Donald Trump, that’s a fact. Dispense with this, and focus on the very real and important work about beating him."
Rep. Conor Lamb said the impeachment trial didn’t come up at a town hall he held in January. “It’s not to say that it’s not important,” said Lamb, a freshman Democrat who voted in favor of impeachment and represents a Western Pennsylvania district that Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 3 points.
“I just think everyone has to remember, it doesn’t seem to be the No. 1 issue in a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “I think as the year goes on, people are going to rightly demand: ‘Where are we going in the future?’ ”
Republican Rep. Fred Keller, who voted against impeachment with the rest of his party, said his constituents weren’t paying attention to the trial.
“I think the Democrats wanted it to affect the president’s reelection negatively and it’s not having that effect,” said Keller, who represents parts of the Susquehanna Valley and central Pennsylvania. “Hearing from people, they’re tired of this distraction and the fact that it’s a sham, and they want the president’s policies that have been effective to continue.”
Polling showed the country divided, largely along party lines, on whether Trump should have been removed from office. In Pennsylvania, 57% of registered voters said they supported the impeachment inquiry in an October survey.
But between then and after the trial started in January, Trump’s approval rating in Pennsylvania increased by about 4 points, to 38%, according to a recent Franklin and Marshall College poll.
“There’s still very hard-set feelings that folks have for the president,” said Mike Barley, a GOP strategist in Harrisburg. “There is an awful lot of people that like him and they like the way the country’s moving... and those who don’t aren’t changing their mind.”
Barley said there aren’t many voters in the middle. For those who are, who the Democratic nominee is, not impeachment, will have more impact, he said: “Ultimately, the biggest decision is who’s running against him.”
The question that remains to be seen is which voters will be fired up most. Trump won Pennsylvania by just 44,000 votes in 2016 — less than 1% of all ballots cast — which along with razor-thin victories in Michigan and Wisconsin elevated him to the White House. All signs point to a similarly close outcome and decisive role for Pennsylvania in 2020, and any advantage in mobilization could prove critical.
“This will energize our base tremendously," said Nancy Patton Mills, chair of the state Democratic Party. "The situation now is this is the first time they’ve ever had an impeachment where they didn’t call witnesses.”
Mills said the issue won’t just go away, pointing to reports late in the trial that Trump attempted to enlist former national security adviser John Bolton in his efforts to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump denied wrongdoing, though as the trial drew to a close, a growing number of Republicans said he acted inappropriately — even if those actions didn’t rise to the level of warranting his removal.
“There will be more, and there will be more, and there will be more,” Mills said. “The electorate will gradually, like a dripping faucet, hear the truth about Donald Trump.”
And with Trump sure to claim exoneration, Democrats may get angrier. “They’ll feel like they’ve lost. Trump, being Trump, will spike the football,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican and Trump critic who represented the Lehigh Valley before retiring in 2018. “And that could motivate the Democratic base.”
Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Delaware County Democrat who helped draft the articles of impeachment against Trump from her seat on the House Judiciary Committee, was hopeful the outcome will mobilize voters in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“Seeing the truth was not enough to sway the Senate, I think everyone has to do a little bit more,” Scanlon said last week as she gathered signatures to get on the ballot for reelection. “The Pennsylvania collar counties and soccer moms in those collar counties are the vote that has to turn out.”
About 250 miles to the west, Jackie Kulback, chairwoman of the Cambria County Republican Party, predicted Trump’s acquittal would juice GOP turnout. Impeachment already motivated her in-laws to switch their party registration, she said.
On Friday, Kulback said, as the impeachment trial was winding down, she accompanied her mother- and father-in law, both in their late 80s, to the county clerk’s office, where they changed their voter registration from Democrat to Republican.
“Never in my life did I think they would switch parties,” Kulback said of her in-laws, who voted for Trump but held on to their Democratic affiliation. Her father-in-law was a lifelong union steelworker in Johnstown, the kind of traditionally Democratic voter Trump captured in 2016. “The impeachment really put them over the top. That was the catalyst for them,” Kulback said.
Voters interviewed last week were at least united in their frustration.
“It has just been a sham,” said Katherine Conroy, a graphic designer from Berwyn and a Democrat. “The fact that they didn’t have any documents or witnesses just made it a foregone conclusion and really bad for democracy.”
Conroy, 49, said she was always going to vote for a Democrat in November. But the trial made her want to get more involved.
“I watched basically as much as I could stand without getting too discouraged,” Conroy said. “It got so depressing and horrible. I feel like the Republican senators acted very cowardly.”
Dwayne Mort, a Republican who lives near Gettysburg, also dismissed the trial, but for a different reason. He thought Trump never should have been impeached in the first place.
“It’s total B.S.,” said Mort, a project manager for a glass company, “and it’s just bolstering his base.”
Mort voted for Trump in 2016 and said he’s seen an increase in pay since then. “For me, this election, it’s basically about getting him reelected and continuing his policies," he said. "The impeachment circus was never going to change any of that.”
Not everyone had strong feelings. One voter who came across Scanlon as she was hunting for signatures gave an almost Trumpian appraisal of the moment.