I don’t think that’s true at all. Though he was no Washington or Lincoln, Trump amended the informal Constitution in at least five significant ways. No one of them is epochal or entirely unprecedented, but together they add up to something new, large, and dangerous.
Amendment 1. No president shall be removed from office for treason, bribery, or any other crime or misdemeanor, no matter how high, should a partisan minority of the Senate choose to protect him.
This amendment would have alarmed the Founders profoundly. They provided for only one way to remove a malfeasant president—impeachment by a majority of the House and conviction by two-thirds of the Senate. (The Twenty-fifth Amendment is designed for an incapacitated president, not a corrupt one.) Until Trump came along, the process had been used only twice, in 1868 and 1998, for Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither was convicted by the Senate, but the potency of the threat was enough to constrain presidential behavior—a norm that was strengthened in 1974, when President Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment.
Trump was not the first president to be impeached, the first to be acquitted, or the first to be protected by his party. In 1998, Senate Democrats protected Clinton. But the charge against Clinton (perjuring himself to cover up a sexual affair) didn’t seem very serious to the public, and after his acquittal it was still possible to assume that a truly high crime or misdemeanor would result in conviction. Trump and his Republican enablers comprehensively demolished that assumption.
Trump’s first impeachment, in 2020, was for trying to use federal aid dollars to extort political help from a foreign country. That seemed as serious as the Watergate shenanigans that forced Nixon from office. His second impeachment, in 2021, was for sending a seditious mob into the streets to overturn an election—a misdeed that exceeded any prior presidential offense. As the House managers rightly asked in Trump’s second trial, if the Senate did not convict a president for fomenting a violent insurrection, what in the world would it convict him for? The particulars, though, turned out not to matter. In both cases, the outcome—acquittal—was a foregone conclusion, because all Trump needed was 34 pliable and protective Senate votes.
The impeachment mechanism was intended to be a check on presidential misbehavior; instead, post-Trump, it is now more like a partisan permission slip, allowing presidents to do as they please provided they keep their party in line. In other words, from now on, presidents should assume that the way to hold on to power is to stay not on the right side of the law but on the right side of their party. To put it mildly, that is not what the Founders intended.
Amendment 2. Congressional oversight shall be optional. No congressional subpoena or demand for testimony or documents shall bind a president who chooses to ignore it.
Since the earliest days of the republic, Congress’s authority to oversee and investigate the executive branch, though unwritten, has been one of the Constitution’s most important avenues of presidential accountability. Anyone who doubts this need only recall the impact of the Watergate hearings. As teenagers, my brother and I got up and watched them early each morning before school, riveted by the daily revelations. Because congressional investigations can be so embarrassing, presidents have, to one degree or another, slow-walked them since the Washington administration. No news there.