Impeachment: An Argument

In the March 1976 issue of The Atlantic, Elliot Richardson, the former attorney general, made a silver-lining argument about the then-recent constitutional crisis:

Beyond its own sordid confines, Watergate has been redemptive—a disguised stroke of good fortune … The good fortune may yet turn to ashes, but I am one of those whom H. L. Mencken called the “optimists and chronic hopers of the world,” and I see gain for this country in the reassertion of old ideals and the renewal of government processes.

Richardson had resigned his post in 1973 rather than follow President Richard Nixon’s directive to fire the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. The “Saturday Night Massacre,” as it became known, placed Nixon firmly on the path to disgrace.

When Yoni Appelbaum, the editor of The Atlantic’s Ideas section and a historian of American institutions, recently made an argument to us about the efficacy of impeachment, I turned to our Watergate-era archives. Yoni’s argument is in one way similar to Richardson’s. Impeachment, as I had previously understood it, seemed like a formula for chaos, the sort of chaos no fractured nation needs. But impeachment, Yoni said, is actually an antidote to chaos. The Framers provided in the Constitution an orderly, evidence-based process that allows the American people, through their elected representatives, to determine whether a president has displayed the character and moral fitness to continue to serve as the nation’s chief executive. Yoni’s view is that we should take the debate over President Donald Trump’s fitness out of the court of public opinion and place it where it belongs: in Congress. This “renewal of government processes” might itself be redemptive, and would certainly be clarifying.

Here at The Atlantic, we are caught in an eternal dilemma. Our founding manifesto promises readers that we will be of no party or clique. This is why The Atlantic is generally so hesitant to endorse candidates for any office. And yet our founding editors also promised that The Atlantic would stand for impartial liberty and wage war “against despotism in every form.” The magazine endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (but not, for reasons lost to history, in 1864). In 1964, faced with a candidate for president temperamentally unsuited for office, The Atlantic came out in favor of the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson. And in 2016, we endorsed Hillary Clinton. As in 1964, this most recent endorsement was more of an anti-endorsement. We argued that Trump was “spectacularly unfit” for office. “His affect is that of an infomercial huckster,” we wrote in November 2016. “He traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself.”

In retrospect, we may have been guilty of understatement. In our recently posted digital feature, “Unthinkable,” 50 of our writers examined the most outlandish moments of Trump’s first two years in office, incidents that we could not imagine occurring in other administrations, whether Republican or Democratic. If you’ve read “Unthinkable,” you’ll understand why I consider Yoni’s cover story, “The Case for Impeachment,” worth publishing.

Some home news: After a dazzling run as editor of the print magazine, Scott Stossel, who first crossed The Atlantic’s threshold in 1992, has taken on another role here, that of national editor. He will also be writing feature stories for the magazine, which is a blessing for all of our readers. I asked Scott’s deputy, Don Peck, one of the great ideas editors in American journalism, to take on the editor role, and he has begun his term brilliantly. I also asked Denise Wills, our features editor, to replace Don in the deputy role. Denise is one of the best narrative-nonfiction editors working today—many of the stories we’ve loved the most in recent years have been Denise’s doing. Joining Don and Denise is the legendary designer Peter Mendelsund, who will be our new creative director, and the gifted Oliver Munday, who is coming aboard as senior art director. We already have the strongest team in magazine journalism; these new leaders will ensure that The Atlantic goes from strength to strength.

This article appears in the March 2019 print edition with the headline “Impeachment: An Argument.”