A Donald Trump impeachment would further divide an angry America
America’s cold civil war just turned red hot. On Thursday, the US House of Representatives adopted formal procedures for its impeachment investigation. Unlike prior preliminary impeachment votes, this was a hyper-partisan affair. No one from Donald Trump’s Republican party crossed the aisle to vote for the measure.
By contrast, in 1998 more than 30 Democratic congressmen supported opening an impeachment inquiry into Bill Clinton. In 1974 the vote to confer subpoena power upon the impeachment investigation that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon was 410-4, including 177 Republicans. In those cases, impeachment was a political act but not necessarily a partisan one.
It is not just Congress, America has changed. Four decades ago, the country was more homogeneous and its politics less tribal, even amid the war in Vietnam, the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The previous century had built up a lot of social-capital equity.
Nixon had won re-election in a 20 percentage point landslide in 1972, yet it failed to render him immune from scrutiny. The break-in at the Watergate complex, followed by the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the matter, and the tapes that captured him appearing to interfere with the probe, ultimately doomed him. A unanimous Supreme Court and Republican congressional leaders forced Nixon’s hand. His helicopter departure from the White House reflected the national consensus. His time was over.
Now Mr Trump stands to become the third US president to be impeached by the House. Yet like Andrew Johnson and Mr Clinton before him, Mr Trump will probably be acquitted by the Senate. Under the constitution, a two-thirds supermajority is required. With the GOP controlling the upper chamber, a guilty verdict seems unlikely.
For all the pyrotechnics surrounding impeachment, no US president has ever been removed from office. In that sense, Nixon’s plight serves as a poor model for the 45th president. Back in 1974, America’s television news menu was limited to three networks. There was no smorgasbord of partisan viewing and opinion options equivalent to today’s Fox News, CNBC and the internet. Republicans and Democrats alike looked to CBS’s Walter Cronkite for their nightly news.
Yet predictability does not render this impeachment process meaningless. Rather, with Mr Trump’s disapproval ratings seemingly frozen around 54 per cent, and the 2020 presidential election just 12 months away, impeachment at this juncture remains significant and historic regardless of its outcome.
At a minimum, impeachment will again highlight the president’s Achilles heel, namely the limit of his political legitimacy: in 2016, Mr Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. But for the mechanics of the electoral college, Mrs Clinton would be in the Oval Office.
Try as they might, Mr Trump and his supporters remain haunted by the fact they were rejected by a majority of voters. Between 1992 and 2016, the Republicans failed to win the popular vote six out of seven times. The administration’s efforts to paint the president as a victim of mass voter fraud have gone nowhere. Put differently, impeachment is a reminder that more than half the population saw its will thwarted in 2016.
Although the president and his supporters have branded impeachment a coup, the process is prescribed by the constitution, and its antecedents date back to England. Alexander Hamilton, a lead author of the Federalist Papers (and more recently the hero of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical), depicted impeachment as a check on a president who paid little or no heed to the strictures of his office.
In Federalist No. 65, Hamilton wrote that impeachment was designed to remedy “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” In his view, the constitution’s reference to “high Crimes and Misdemeanours” covers more than just indictable offences.
Like the Clinton impeachment, the current iteration looms as a rallying cry for both sides of the political divide. Think of the 2018 hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, but on steroids.
Last year, those contentious proceedings helped deliver the House to the Democrats in the midterm elections. But they also unified the Republican base, allowing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans to solidify their hold on the upper house, even as Nancy Pelosi seized the Speaker’s gavel.
At present, impeachment is expected to come to a final vote in the House before Christmas, with the Senate sitting as a jury at the start of the new year. That will keep at least four top Democratic contenders — Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — in Washington to help weigh the president’s fate. Former vice-president Joe Biden, who will be free to criss-cross Iowa and New Hampshire, says thank you.
Impeachment will probably electrify an electorate that is already on edge and leave it feeling even more divided. Election Day 2020 can’t come soon enough.
The writer was opposition research counsel for George HW Bush’s 1988 campaign