The Serious Silliness of Impeachment

The constitutional drama now playing out may feel like a circus, but the antics of the two parties are more than mere jousting: They are efforts to shape how the story will be understood for years to come.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“Why do we keep calling this a solemn occasion?” Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, demanded to know during the House debate in advance of President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

He had a point: For all the robotic insistence of Democrats that impeachment was “sad,” “prayerful,” and “somber,” the debate devolved into bathos almost from the start. Republican Representative Steve Scalise screamed and struggled to dramatically tear a piece of paper. His colleague Barry Loudermilk argued that the president was being treated worse than Jesus Christ. (“I don’t like many Jesus comparisons,” the White House aide Kellyanne Conway later commented.) During the vote itself, perhaps the only suspense came when Republican Representative Michael Cloud mistakenly voted “yes” on the first article, giving rise to a short-lived moment during which bipartisanship suddenly seemed possible—before he switched his vote to align with those of his party. Just an hour later, the president stood onstage at a Michigan rally and yelled about toilets and light bulbs.

The pettiness of the day masked the seriousness—even momentousness—of the events that took place. This was, as the press reminded people unceasingly, only the third time in the country’s history that the House of Representatives has impeached a president. The Democrats were not entirely above the nonsense, offering endless platitudes that felt arch and preachy. But it was the Republican antics that threatened to make the process look ridiculous, though the allegations were, in fact, historic in their severity.

Indeed, amid the goofy partisan brawling, a solid majority of members voted to make the president answer for his abuses of the constitutional order. Many of those members did so unwillingly—having resisted the impeachment process long after it became justified as a matter of fact, law, and constitutional necessity. They did so, in certain instances at least, at some peril to their longevity in the body to which they had been only recently elected. They did so knowing they were acting fruitlessly in all practical senses, since there is no prospect whatsoever that the Senate will vote to remove Trump. They did so despite the gnawing worry that they risked energizing the president’s political base, the certainty that they would remove key presidential candidates from the field and force them to sit in a Senate trial during the month before primary voters start going to the polls, and the warnings of political consultants that the party’s 2020 prospects would be improved by talking about health care instead. While the atmosphere of the day was frivolous, the proceedings were possible only because of a collective act of political courage.

It might be tempting to chalk up the absurdity of the impeachment vote to the more general absurdity of this presidency. But this isn’t the first time that fateful questions at issue in impeachments have been surrounded by picayune nonsense. Indeed, momentous historical and constitutional events, like everything else, are built out of the pettinesses of daily life.

In retrospect, Bill Clinton’s impeachment poses a genuinely interesting and important question: What is the lower boundary of the impeachable offense? Is presidential perjury and obstruction of justice forgivable if its subject is “just sex,” as many put it at the time, or does the offense to the judiciary system and the president’s obligations under his oath of office and his constitutional requirement to “take care” that the laws are faithfully executed permit, or even necessitate, impeachment irrespective of the nonofficial nature of the misconduct underlying the lies? Viewed in light of the broader American reckoning about sexual misconduct that has taken place over the past few years, the conduct underlying Clinton’s impeachment—though not the allegations on which Congress impeached him—also raises questions about the nature of presidential power itself, and the extent to which an affair between a president and an intern can be understood apart from that power.

With such important questions in mind, it’s easy to forget what people were actually arguing about in real time during the Clinton impeachment—matters that now seem like little more than minutiae. Did Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Clinton, seek to entrap the president? Can a lame-duck Congress impeach a president? Should a Senate trial hear from witnesses? Once upon a time, the country cared deeply about these matters—and today it seems to care again about the last one.

The Andrew Johnson impeachment got similarly bogged down in silliness. Among the great questions fought considering during Johnson’s confrontation with Congress—questions about who would shape the country’s future after the Civil War, and about the dynamics of power between Congress and the executive branch—there was furious debate over issues that don’t, looking back, appear all that consequential. Should Benjamin Wade, the president pro tempore of the Senate, be allowed a vote in Johnson’s trial, given that Johnson had no vice president and Wade would become president if Johnson were convicted? Could the chief justice rule on the admissibility of evidence in the Senate trial? More broadly, the bulk of the articles of impeachment against Johnson focused on a fairly technical legal breach—his decision to dismiss the secretary of war without congressional approval, in violation of the Tenure of Office Act—in what the historian Brenda Wineapple describes as a reduction of “the great legislative act of impeachment to complicated minutiae.”

An impeachment is ultimately not just a battle over presidential removal. It is also a battle over constitutional narrative. Is the story of Donald Trump’s presidency the story of the president’s misdeeds and abuses, or is it the story of a “WITCH HUNT!” against him? Was the story of Bill Clinton’s impeachment the story of presidential mendaciousness and contempt for the judicial system, or was it the story of a long-term conservative effort to undermine him—a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton famously put it at the time—that finally stumbled on a pretext for acting on its animosity? Was the story of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment the story of “radical” Republicans dead-set against a gentle Reconstruction more conciliatory toward the white South, or was it the story of a lawless president, set on undermining congressional policy toward the southern states and stripping away the rights of people newly free from slavery?

What may seem like silliness at the time of an impeachment is often the result of efforts by the dueling parties to shape these larger narratives. And those narratives aren’t stable over time. Historians and commentators construct the story in different ways at different times. The story of Johnson’s impeachment has changed dramatically over the years. Long regarded as an example of congressional extremism and excess—John F. Kennedy hailed, in Profiles in Courage, the senator who cast the decisive vote for Johnson’s acquittal—it has come to be viewed more recently as a legitimate expression of congressional frustration at Johnson’s efforts to scuttle Reconstruction and secure a white-supremacist vision of American governance. The shift on Clinton has been subtler. While the body of commentary still talks about the Clinton impeachment in terms of excess, and some who supported it at the time have come to wonder whether it was prudent, others who opposed it have taken a second look in the #MeToo era.

Generally speaking, the efforts by both Democrats and Republicans to shape the larger story of the Trump impeachment are painfully obvious—the equivalent of reading stage directions. Democrats—along with the former Republican Justin Amash—want to drive home the larger constitutional importance of the event. Republicans want to argue that impeachment is nothing more than a partisan sham. Why else, after all, would Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi emphasize over and over again the “somberness” of impeachment? And why else would Republicans insist, over and over again, red in the face, that Democrats are engaged in a coup against 63 million common citizens and their votes?

But the Republican story rests also on a more subtle tactic as well. Watching the impeachment proceedings, Ezra Klein of Vox argued that the strategy of the president’s supporters in the House was to make impeachment “partisan and angry and vicious and impossible to parse” in an effort to encourage voters just tuning in for the first time to change the channel. In this respect, the goofiness of the proceedings—the strange stunts, the yelling, the insistent repetition of the party line—are the Republican narrative. So, too, are all the other procedural debates and relatively small-bore concerns that have sucked up oxygen in the wake of the impeachment vote. Will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agree to allow witnesses in the Senate trial? When is the optimal time for Pelosi to present the articles of impeachment to the Senate? If she doesn’t, has the president technically been impeached yet?

Some of these questions matter. Some of them, well, don’t. But focusing too much on the squabbling over these issues draws attention away from the larger historical importance of the vote. Impeachment becomes a lot of confusion and yelling—instead of something that actually defends important democratic values.

The solution? Don’t get bogged down in the silliness.

Step back and give the events of this week the space they need to breathe. Try to force yourself to view this vote with some of the distance with which we can now view the Johnson and Clinton impeachments, as an inflection point in the constitutional narrative. This doesn’t mean ignoring the little questions on which such narratives are built. But it does mean endeavoring always to keep the larger story in focus. Whatever comes next—the negotiations over the Senate trial, the swarm of angry presidential tweets, and, yes, the inevitable vote by a majority of senators to acquit the president—don’t let it overshadow the fact that the House of Representatives impeached President Trump, declaring that his actions were unacceptable and that he had breached the promise he made to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. It’s no small thing.