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.