The Stain of Impeachment Will Last Forever

The House is poised to indelibly alter Trump’s legacy.

Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty

Later today, Donald Trump will become just the third president in American history to be impeached.

Because this outcome has been inevitable since at least late October, and because there is no practical prospect of the Senate voting to remove Trump from office, the impeachment has come to be seen as dull, lacking in drama, or yesterday’s news. This does not negate the seriousness of the charges against the president, nor the substantial evidence to support them. Nor, it’s worth recalling on this day, does it negate the symbolic import of the impeachment. Even without Senate removal, the stain of impeachment will forever be attached to Trump and his presidency.

Trump joins a dishonor roll in the company of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom were impeached but not removed, and Richard Nixon, who resigned when it became clear that he would be both impeached and removed. It’s no coincidence that these men have not fared well in presidential history. Johnson is remembered as a bungler and an apologist for white supremacy who sabotaged Reconstruction. Nixon’s name is shorthand for political corruption.

While his offenses do not measure up to Trump’s, Clinton is perhaps the most useful comparison. Clinton survived impeachment with his popular approval intact, buoyed by an otherwise successful term in office and a strong economy. But his reputation has suffered since he left office. There was never any dispute about whether Clinton perjured himself, as charged—he apologized at the time. Many Democrats felt bound by politics to defend Clinton, but with distance, lower political stakes, and changing perceptions about sexual mores, many liberals have become more forthright in criticizing him, accepting some of the central Republican arguments against him.

Although many Democrats still contend that the impeachment was a politically motivated witch hunt and that Clinton’s actions, while worthy of condemnation, did not rise to the level of impeachment, the proceeding clearly tarnished him. (It doesn’t help that some of Clinton’s key policy achievements, including NAFTA, the 1994 crime bill, and welfare reform, have also fallen out of favor.) They also probably harmed his party’s political prospects. It’s no accident that Clinton still nurses a grudge about impeachment.

Trump is angry, too. Though he continues to claim that impeachment will be a political boon to him in 2020—it’s possible, though maybe not likely, and any judgment is premature—the president is reportedly seething privately over the impeachment. Yesterday, his fury spilled into public in a bizarre, rambling, self-pitying letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Trump has taken public consolation from the assurance that the Senate will not convict and remove him. But while impeachment is often likened to an indictment, they’re not exactly the same. Impeachment is a serious sanction in itself, and acquittal in the Senate is not the same as vindication. Members of the Senate are not voting merely on whether charges are true, but whether they merit removal. Again, comparison to Clinton is useful: There was no question that Clinton had lied under oath; the question was whether the offense was serious enough for him to lose his office.

In Trump’s case, the Senate’s anticipated decision will not erase the substantial evidence against him. Trump sent his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to meddle in Ukraine, creating a foreign-policy back channel that was designed to aid his 2020 reelection bid by digging up damaging information about former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate for president.

When Giuliani’s efforts came up short, and the sitting president of Ukraine lost in a landslide, Trump and his allies quickly moved to extort assistance from Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in order to improve his prospects in the 2020 election. While also raising a bogus conspiracy theory about Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate a company where Biden’s son served as a director. Trump-administration officials said in sworn testimony that Trump expressed no interest in the result of the investigation, but solely in the announcement—that is, the political benefit, not any fight against corruption.

In apparent violation of the law, Trump held up millions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine, desperately needed in its battle against Russia, that had been appropriated by Congress. The administration then sought to create retroactive justifications for the hold. The aid was eventually released after the hold became public, but Trump refused to cooperate with Congress, declining to allow testimony and holding back documents from the investigation. Meanwhile, Trump and Giuliani continue to try to extort foreign interference in the election.

Few, if any, of these facts are seriously in question. Trump and many Republicans have argued that Trump was within his authority to do what he did, but that doesn’t dispute the basic fact that the president extorted foreign election interference for his own personal political benefit, using government funds. And as the Clinton example shows, even an impeachment process that the president’s defenders deride as a partisan witch hunt stains a presidency.

Trump may manage to distinguish himself even among presidents who were impeached or nearly impeached. The scale and brazenness of his scheme mean that his name is likely to replace Nixon’s as a byword for corruption and abuse of political power. It also gives Trump a shot at joining other presidents who were not impeached, such as Warren G. Harding and George W. Bush, but are among the residents of the White House with the worst records in office.

At historic moments like this one, it’s common to hear portentous statements about history rendering a verdict. This is a puerile, anthropomorphizing notion of history, which has no agency. History does not remember; people do. The verdict of history is simply the people’s view of a person’s reputation, and reputation is the same as brand. No president has ever understood the power and mystique of brand as keenly as Donald Trump, which means he is acutely able to grasp the blow to his reputation that the House is striking today.