Wednesday’s impeachment of President Donald Trump was one of the strangest political events in memory: A historic rebuke to a president delivered with just days remaining in his term, with seemingly little at stake—and a Senate away on recess, in no rush to take a vote on whether to convict.
Notably, 10 Republicans joined the vote, making it the most bipartisan vote in the slim history of impeachments. But how much will any of this really matter? Does it stand any chance of bringing Americans together in rejecting Trump’s instigation of the Capitol riot—or will the rushed process just make an already stubborn partisan divide worse? To put it in context, Politico Magazine reached out to a group of impeachment experts and political insiders for some insight on what’s really at stake. We asked them two questions: How will this impeachment affect the next four years in politics? And what about impeachment itself, a strange Constitutional weapon once almost unthinkable, and now used twice in just over a year?
Most were skeptical that the impeachment could help close partisan divisions, given how few Republicans voted against the president, but most also still had faith in impeachment as a useful political tool. “What occurred before, during and after the assault on the Capitol last week is one hell of a threshold for a bipartisan impeachment of this president,” one wrote. “But after almost four years, we finally have one.”
‘We finally have a threshold for impeachment.’
David Priess is the chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute and the author of How To Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives.
Opponents of President Trump’s impeachment on Wednesday claim that this solemn event will further divide the country. This would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but only if they choose to make it so. They could instead use this bipartisan impeachment as a chance to come to grips with the president’s abhorrent role in the events of last week and declare him unfit to remain president. If so, this impeachment would be an important first step in the long process of reckoning with the unprecedented behavior of this president and his enablers, as well as the circumstances that led us to this point.
Because Trump’s actions went so far beyond his predecessors’ transgressions, there is no reasonable fear that this will set a lower bar for impeachment. On the contrary, the fact that both Democratic and Republican representatives supported this measure for only the second time in America’s four presidential impeachment votes—joining only Bill Clinton’s December 1998 impeachment in this rare club—establishes that it takes something quite far beyond the pale, even if not universally acknowledged as such, to get this result. What occurred before, during and after the assault on the Capitol last week is one hell of a threshold for a bipartisan impeachment of this president. But after almost four years, we finally have one.
‘Trump unleashed a fascist element in our society.’
Alan I. Baron is former special impeachment counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The impeachment process will not deter President Donald Trump’s supporters from their violent efforts to disrupt and destabilize the orderly processes of government. It will not be a unifying force in our political life. The people who invaded the Capitol are not representative of the vast majority of those who voted for Trump. They do, however, constitute a violent substantial minority that Trump has encouraged, supported and unleashed. The genie is out of the bottle. Unless these insurrectionists are stopped, the hardcore members will disrupt, intimidate and destroy our democratic processes for years to come and perhaps forever.
The impeachment process is, unfortunately, too cumbersome to become a frequently used tool in American political life, at least where a president is concerned. Impeachment has worked well dealing with the federal judiciary. All eight convictions have been federal judges.
However, when the president is the subject of the impeachment, political considerations overwhelm legal issues. Trump’s impeachment “trial” in the Senate in 2020 was a farce and a thumb in the eye of those who believe in constitutional government. There were no witnesses, no evidence was presented, important witnesses were instructed not to testify and executive departments were precluded from producing relevant documents.
On January 6, 2021, we paid the price for this flagrant repudiation of the constitutional process. Trump clearly does not fear impeachment, perhaps because his term of office is up on January 20, 2021. It must be recalled, however, that there is a second independent aspect to impeachment: being barred from holding future federal office. That only requires a majority vote in the Senate. Fifty democratic Senators, plus Vice President Kamala Harris, could preclude any plans Trump or his followers have for 2024.
The people who stormed the Capitol had a clear goal: override the results of a fair election supported by a majority of American voters. Trump tapped into and unleashed a fascist element in our society which repudiates and threatens our democracy. This must be stopped or the American experiment, which, despite its flaws, has been a beacon of tolerance and justice under law, will fail.
If the Senate does not convict, ‘it’s difficult to conceive of the relevance of impeachment itself.’
Kim Wehle is a professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
Even among stalwart supporters of Donald Trump in Congress, the country is not divided about one truth: that the events of January 6 were horrific, intolerable, and must never be repeated. Also unassailable is the fact that America does not yet know the full story as to what happened—the breakdown of security and law enforcement at the Capitol, the complicity (if any) of elected leaders and agency management, and the scope of the breach.
Yet if the Senate does not determine by a two-thirds majority that the president’s actions leading up to, during, and after January 6, 2021 constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, it’s difficult to conceive of the relevance of impeachment itself as a mechanism for presidential accountability in future administrations. This is tragic, as the Framers unequivocally intended impeachment to have real force.
‘A warning to all future presidents that they will face consequences.’
Allan J. Lichtman is a history professor and author of The Case for Impeachment.
Contrary to what some critics might say, the second impeachment of Donald Trump does not lower the bar for impeachment. Republicans impeached Bill Clinton in 1998 for covering up a private consensual affair, but no flurry of impeachments followed until the misdeeds of President Donald Trump. Rather than encouraging political impeachment, the current proceedings send a warning to all future presidents that they will face consequences for putting American democracy and the safety of the American people in serious jeopardy.
Congress will not promote unity by excusing and passing over what is the most serious transgression in presidential history. Liz Cheney, the third ranking Republican in the House and the daughter of George W. Bush’s vice president, said, “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” Unity can be restored only by holding the president accountable for this misdeed and going on the record against such an egregious violation of the presidential oath.
The storming of the Capitol was no random event inadvertently spurred on by overheated political rhetoric. Trump summoned his followers to D.C. on January 6, saying it would be “wild.” The rally was coordinated by outside right-wing groups, including an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association. Trump urged his loyalists to march on the Capitol and “demand that Congress do the right thing … fight like hell … you’ll never take back our country with weakness.” His ally Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” Most damning, even as he watched the violence unfold, Trump rebuffed calls to stop the mayhem. Desperate Republican senators and representatives, fearing for their lives, tried calling the president for aid. No response. Trump was too busy watching the assault on television, with some delight, according to eyewitnesses. He only released a video tepidly calling for peace far too late. There must be consequences for his behavior.
‘Impeachment is underused.’
Matt Bruenig is the founder and president of the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank.
The impeachment won’t reunify anything because Republicans have no desire to unify. It won’t further divide anything because it won’t really affect how people view the parties. The views are set already.
I think impeachment will be used more in the future, possibly for purely political purposes, and that is a good thing. Impeachment is underused. Actions should have consequences. Opposition parties should impeach presidents any time they have the chance.
‘This is a unique case, but this is a uniquely lawless president.’
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor for the Atlantic.
Impeachment is already tribal, so it is unlikely to deepen divisions. If anything, it could be unifying, by getting at least some Republicans willing to say that this process of trying to delegitimize a legitimate election—and a president trying to incite violence to stay in power illegitimately—is so far over the line that it requires extraordinary measures. There is at least a slim chance that this jolt will alter in a modest way the clear GOP strategy in the Senate, as we saw in 2009-10 and 2013-14, to filibuster everything and everyone and try to delegitimize both Obama’s policies and the president himself. This shift might allow votes on some Biden policies like health reform and Covid-19 relief—beyond what can be done in reconciliation. But impeachment won’t have a dramatic effect.
A bigger question looms: Will there be efforts to expel or censure those Republicans who encouraged the seizure of the Capitol? That is, in my view, necessary, but it might end up more divisive than a presidential impeachment!
Second, I do not expect impeachment to become regularized. This is a unique case, because this is a uniquely lawless president. We have never had one this reckless or corrupt.
‘I believe impeachment will and should remain rarely used.’
Joel Benenson is founder of the Benenson Strategy Group. He was a strategist and pollster for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
With or without impeachment, as president, Biden will have to work to live up to his promise to bring the country together again. This theme was central to his campaign, and the worst mistake any new POTUS can make is walking away from a central theme and promise of their campaign, but especially those that are rooted in the core values of the candidate. Biden’s decency and respect for others are attributes that he has demonstrated for as long as he has been a public figure.
On the question of impeachment, I believe it will and should remain rarely used, although the broad rationale for impeachment, which is not criminal activity but betrayal of the trust of your office, may become better understood by Americans through this process. I don’t think there will be any appetite for significantly modifying the standards for impeachment because of the repeated disgraceful conduct of Donald Trump. The standards have stood the test of time.
In their wonderful book, How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify a central ingredient that enables authoritarians to take control: it is when the gatekeepers fail. That should be a wake-up call to every Republican officeholder who stood by for four years, instead of standing up to the Donald Trump.
‘Impeachment will do nothing to heal partisan divisions over the next four years.’
Leah Litman is an assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan.
With just 10 votes, Republicans did not show they would join their Democratic colleagues in calls for unity to stand against mob violence, insurrection and election fraud, which suggests that the impeachment will do nothing to heal partisan divisions over the next four years. Trumpeting and amplifying baseless claims of election fraud should not be a partisan issue. Attempting to overthrow the results of a fair, democratic election should not be a partisan issue. Inciting mobs to storm the capitol, ransack the building, and violently confront elected representatives should not be a partisan issue.
Whether Republicans treat these things as partisan issues—and specifically, whether a significant number of Republicans treat them as partisan issues—will affect whether a large minority of the country feels emboldened to violently challenge the Biden administration and whether elected Republicans will have cover to refuse to engage with the administration in good faith and politicize impeachment in the future. So far, judging from the House vote, that looks most likely to happen.
‘The challenge now is for more Republicans to recognize their patriotic duty to de-radicalize the GOP.’
Timothy Naftali is a professor of public service at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. He is a co-author of Impeachment: An American History.
While Wednesday’s rebuff was not as strong as it should have been, Congress nevertheless condemned Trump in the most bipartisan impeachment in U.S. history. The challenge now is for more Republicans to recognize their patriotic duty to de-radicalize the GOP and ensure that America has two constitutionalist parties. Sweeping January 6th under the table, with the implicit dual lies about a moral equivalence to the Black Lives Matter movement and that the attack was defined by anarchism, would only further the sense of empowerment on the Trumpist right. We remain in a perilous moment. If there weren’t a clear and present danger to our constitutional institutions from an incited right, Republican members of Congress who contemplated voting against Trump would not be fearing for their families’ safety and members of our military wouldn’t be sleeping these nights in the halls of the Capitol.
As for impeachment, this second impeachment suggests that the process is as strong as ever. The Founders empowered Congress with the powers of impeachment and removal to respond to threats to our Constitutional system from its sworn officers, especially from those at its highest level.
Impeachments based solely on partisan fury are a misunderstanding of the spirit of our Constitution, whether made as snap efforts or not. We have precedents of bad impeachments— the partisan efforts against Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. But is that what is really going on now?
For weeks following the November 3 presidential election, President Donald J. Trump stoked the cultural, social and political anxieties of millions of Americans by asserting, without evidence, that he and his supported were the victims of the largest electoral fraud in U.S. history. He encouraged challenges at the state and the national level, denying the results of the election and asserting that if justice prevailed he and his supporters would win. Step by step, our institutions held against this effort to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election. When Pence refused to block the certification of the electoral votes and the GOP majority in the Senate turned against Trump, he further incited his army of supporters and watched as they violently occupied the Congress and obstructed the count.
The Founders did not leave a precise definition of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” to future generations but in their debates and in their understanding of existing English legal precedent they made clear the spirit that should inspire impeachments. Future Congress should remove from office those who threatened the continuation of their great work in 1787, as Trump clearly did. Wednesday’s unprecedented second impeachment was animated by that responsibility.
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