It’s hard to believe, but exactly year ago, the big news story was U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment. Twelve months later, a viral pandemic is killing thousands of Americans every day and Republicans are still so loyal to Trump that it took until this week for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to acknowledge that he’d lost the November election.
So it seems worth asking: Did impeachment matter? And what, if anything, was it worth?
For one thing, it looks unlikely that the investigation, the impeachment itself or the Senate trial meaningfully affected the outcome of the 2020 vote. Trump emerged with his support from his base roughly intact.
And in fact, despite mismanaging the government response to COVID-19 and presiding over an economic meltdown, Trump came nail-bitingly close to winning reelection. It’s easy to conclude that, without the pandemic, Trump would have won. And if that’s correct, it would seem that the impeachment would not have made any difference.
As for the congressional races, Democrats lost ground in the House, which could be interpreted as voters’ disapproval of impeachment — although that was not the explanation preferred by the losers. Nor were the handful Republican losses in the Senate read as disapproval of the absurd show trial led by McConnell.
But electoral results are not the only measure of the impeachment’s significance. There is also the verdict of history.
When history textbooks sum up the Trump presidency in the decades to come, they are likely to say something like this: Trump was elected in 2016 as an insurgent, populist candidate, the first president who had no prior service either in elected office or as a victorious general in a major war. He was impeached by the Democratic House for trying to subvert the 2020 election by getting the president of Ukraine to investigate his main rival, Joe Biden. The Republican Senate acquitted him. Then, in the midst of a pandemic, he lost his reelection bid to Biden, the same man he tried to smear.
Notice that this brief, U.S. history survey-course summary features the impeachment as the central narrative event of the Trump presidency. One reason impeachment will loom so large is that it will serve as a useful symbol of the controversy that plagued Trump’s entire presidency, including the Russia collusion investigation and other kinds of corruption. The highly partisan nature of the impeachment and the trial will stand in for the hyper-polarized political environment of the last four years. Most important, the impeachment will fit well with the narrative of a single-term president who lost the popular vote twice and broke longstanding ethical and legal norms.
It’s impossible to be certain, of course, but if Trump’s presidency comes to be treated as an embarrassing anomaly, the impeachment can be made to function narratively as proof that the system didn’t take Trump’s corruption lying down.
Even if this somewhat optimistic prediction of the future historical repudiation of Trump is too rosy, the impeachment effort will still have been worthwhile. The fact is, the House investigation created a historical record of a president who abused the power of the office to pressure a foreign government to tarnish his most threatening political opponent.
If the House had not impeached Trump for that behavior, it would have communicated an implicit judgment that there was nothing wrong with his conduct — that abuse of power to facilitate reelection isn’t a high crime and misdemeanor under the Constitution. That would have dealt a devastating blow to constitutional norms. It would have invited future presidents to do likewise without serious fear of consequence.
To be sure, the Senate’s decision not to remove Trump certainly sent the message to history that members of the president’s own party were OK with his actions. Constitutional lawyers will not be able to say that the Trump impeachment created a precedent that such conduct counted as a crime worthy of removal. They will only be able to say that there was partisan disagreement about whether such behavior is acceptable.
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the other framers of the Constitution would not, could not possibly be proud of how the impeachment process ended. But at least they can rest easy in the knowledge that the constitutional machinery they created was used, not ignored.
And any further future president will at least have to consider that abusing the office of the presidency falls within the realm of impeachable conduct — even if you might be able to get an acquittal. Future presidents should also remember that Trump’s intended victim not only survived, but ultimately beat him at the ballot box.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Deep Background.” He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
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