America Is Too Impeachment Obsessed

Relentless discussion may harm our democracy and inflame partisan dysfunction.

Donald Trump
Jim Young / Reuters

About the author: Joshua Matz is a constitutional lawyer and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School based in Washington, D.C. Laurence H. Tribe is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. They are co-authors of To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, which will be released shortly in paperback.  

Calls to impeach President Donald Trump—and denunciations of those calls—have run rampant in American public discourse since Election Day 2016.  Although support for ending Trump’s tenure has never exceeded 50 percent, it’s no exaggeration to say that talk of impeachment is now a defining feature of our politics. But major implications of that fact remain underappreciated.

This essay was adapted from To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, by Joshua Matz and Laurence H. Tribe.

Over the past two years, hardly any development in the federal government has escaped the inevitable think piece opining that Trump’s presidency has finally been doomed or saved. By November 2018, the word impeachment had already been uttered on cable news 12,000 times that year. New books and articles on the topic arrive weekly. Commentators including Elizabeth Holtzman and The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum have championed the cause. Tom Steyer has poured millions of dollars into Need to Impeach, and many liberals have rallied to his banner. These calls for Trump’s removal echo widely in #resistance circles—and also on Fox and Breitbart, which gleefully feature this “proof” of a liberal conspiracy.

Most people who discuss impeachment act in good faith, moved by genuine concern for the fate of the nation. It is now clear to many Americans that Trump’s conduct during the 2016 election and since taking office has caused grave harm to our democracy. Under these circumstances, it would be strange, even irresponsible, to avoid the question of impeachment entirely.

That’s one reason that, in June 2017, we resolved to write a book on the history, law, and strategy of impeachment. At the time, the nation was already debating an array of alleged “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” We wanted to offer a realistic, evenhanded vision of the impeachment power.

Of course, the process of writing a book is itself educational. We undertook a wide-ranging historical study of calls to impeach American presidents. Not just the standard trio of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, but also many others who faced down impeachment efforts in the House or mainstream press.

This led us to some fascinating and unexpected stories. It also helped us recognize that modern Americans invoke impeachment faster and more aggressively than any other generation in history. Yes, Trump is a special case. But a permanent impeachment campaign produces severely disruptive effects on our political system.

In ways large and small, the Trump-presidency death watch influences news coverage and commentary. A remarkable number of stories are judged, explained, and assigned significance by reference to their role in the anticipated narrative of Trump’s removal. Rather than prioritizing questions about the legality, morality, or wisdom of Trump’s conduct, many analysts fixate on whether we’ve finally hit midnight on the Impeachment Clock. “Are we there yet?” becomes the first response to each new revelation.

The president wins—and everyone else loses—when the main framework for evaluating his conduct is whether it will trigger impeachment. By battling on that terrain, he preemptively sets aside most standards by which a democracy should judge its leader. He also invigorates his base by turning every dispute into a referendum on his presidency. That’s why he constantly tweets about threats to impeach him or invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. He wants these issues to be front and center—and mired in partisan conflicts.

For instance, during the confirmation fight over now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump warned that Democrats might try to impeach him for nominating Kavanaugh. In so doing, Trump aimed to shore up his position by framing criticism of Kavanaugh as part of an illegitimate, bad-faith effort to undermine his presidency. Similarly, during the 2018 midterms, Trump repeatedly brought up impeachment to encourage voters to support GOP candidates. “If [impeachment] does happen,” he told his audience, “it’s your fault, because you didn’t go out to vote. Okay? You didn’t go out to vote.”

Over time, a focus on impeachment can flatten and distort our politics. Many of Trump’s worst policies can’t properly be squeezed into an impeachment framework. The same might be said about many of Trump’s scariest foreign-policy judgments and public statements. The Muslim ban, family separation, erratic negotiations with North Korea, and inaction on climate change—these are abhorrent policies, but they are not impeachable offenses. When the only worthwhile end game is Trump’s removal from office, justifiable outrage over these issues too quickly recedes into the background, even as we are treated to an endless diet of speculative headlines about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s secret files.

Impeachment discourse has also caused some to divert their attention to a small set of elite actors, as though lawyers and legislators alone can set things right. Mueller’s investigation is critically important. But so is systematic oversight by a newly invigorated House and the kind of grassroots activism that has risen stratospherically over the past two years. There is a real risk that obsession with impeachment may divert money and energy from more important forms of political engagement.

Perhaps most disturbing, constant talk of impeachment has raised the stakes of political disagreement—favoring polarization and tribalism, while thwarting compromise and moderation. As the Nixon and Clinton cases show, presidents who find themselves in impeachment territory often respond by seeking to maximize partisan polarization across the board. The playbook is familiar: Attack journalists and prosecutors; denounce political opponents as partisan hacks; smear any damaging witnesses; use the bully pulpit to raise issues that sharply divide the public; and manufacture partisan conflict over every step taken by investigators. Impeachments cannot succeed without substantial bipartisan support—and so presidents under threat must turbocharge partisanship.

That appears to be Trump’s strategy as well. Within weeks of his inauguration, 30 percent of the nation supported his ouster. By May 2017, that number had climbed to 38 to 43 percent. There it has remained—40 percent, plus or minus a few points—for the past 21 months (with a short blip up to 49 percent following the guilty plea of Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, and the conviction of his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort). Trump’s general program of maximizing partisanship has helped to keep impeachment mired in tribal division. There is enough support for Trump’s removal from office to keep blood pressures high, but not enough to tip the scales.

Now every political skirmish has become part of a larger war. The White House itself hangs in the balance. If Trump loses big fights, he may also lose his job. That makes it harder to compromise on even minor issues, while pushing officials to pursue an all-or-nothing politics of spectacle in which Trump is vilified or vindicated at every turn.

In some respects, impeachment fixation is a symptom of Americans’ increased unwillingness to accept election results. The past three presidents have faced not only ordinary political opposition, but also claims that they were somehow illegitimate. George W. Bush, some liberals said, hadn’t really won, but had been “installed” by the Supreme Court. The current president claimed the last president was not born in the United States.

Obviously, the objections to Barack Obama can be distinguished from criticism of Trump. There was never any hint that Obama obtained office through corrupt or criminal means involving aid from a hostile foreign power. Still, it is unnerving that so many people on both sides of the aisle now view the opposing party as un-American—and are quick to contest the validity of any election they lose. As Jane Chong noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Our faith in the presidency has become contingent on the identity of the party controlling it. It is no faith at all.”

In thinking about impeachment’s place in our democratic system, we must guard against the impulse to view elections as a mere prologue to continued partisan conflict over who may legitimately exercise power. At the same time, elections must also be free and fair to be accepted as legitimate.

And here we arrive at an unavoidable tension. The nation must get to the bottom of any unlawful or corrupt distortions in the 2016 election—and any abuses committed since then. But relentless discussion of impeachment may itself harm our democracy and inflame partisan dysfunction. Worse, impeachment talk can tire people out and create a boy-who-cried-wolf dilemma, making impeachment harder if and when it is truly necessary.

There is no easy way out. But we suspect that less focus on impeachment, and more focus on investigation, would be a good start. We would also note that an impeachment effort is doomed without Republican buy-in. That means persuading Trump supporters to break tribal walls, rather than pursuing political rhetoric that alienates those who don’t already agree.

This essay was adapted from the new epilogue of  To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, which will be released shortly in paperback.