OP-ED: Impeachment loses its constitutional gravity in Trump case
WASHINGTON – Years from now, will you remember where you were and what you were doing when President Donald Trump was impeached? Have you forgotten already?
The country has been on a constitutional bullet train that took off with a whistleblower’s highly detailed account of wrongdoing, roared ahead through a cascade of tweets and lurched to a halt after more than four months of inquiry, angst and debate with Trump’s acquittal on Wednesday. So can you point to Ukraine on a map?
American children learn almost by rote that impeachment is a gravely serious proposition, the constitutional means for removing a president from office who commits “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The words of founders like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and George Mason are invoked from more than two centuries ago to remind everyone why they thought the federal government needed to have a means to undo an election.
Long before anyone split an atom, the founders created the political equivalent of a nuclear weapon, with the fate of the nation in the balance.
This time, it just didn’t feel like it.
We were witness to history in a way few generations have been. But it was a chapter of history laced with artifice.
The roughly half of the country that wanted Trump to be impeached and begone knew his acquittal was all but preordained in the Republican-controlled Senate. Just as Trump loyalists thought the matter was a hoax inflicted by the Democratic-controlled House.
The Senate impeachment trial delivered eloquence without persuasiveness, a mystery without suspense. It delivered argument without the anguish that accompanied the other impeachment episodes in anyone’s lifetime today.
In the past they wept.
In 1974, Republican Rep. M. Caldwell Butler of Virginia wept after he cast a committee vote to impeach fellow Republican Richard Nixon. “For years we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct,” he said. “But Watergate is our shame.”
A quarter-century later, California Republican Rep. Tom Campbell verged on tears from the weight of the moment when he announced in favor of Clinton’s impeachment in a near whisper.
As partisan and poisonous as that era was, too, Democrats gave their president a tongue-lashing to remember before saving his presidency. “He’s not the best Democrat any of us have seen,” snapped Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York.
Trump commanded fealty from his party like others also stained by impeachment or its threat never did. Only one in Congress broke with the president, and for him the anguish was plain on his face and in his voice. “The president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said on the Senate floor as he explained why he would vote for conviction.
The founders were never big on specifics. In essence, they told the House to handle impeachment and the Senate to manage conviction or acquittal as each chamber sees fit. Their atomic bomb from the ages came without a detailed instruction manual or FAQ.
As the Senate sat as both judge and jury to assess the impeachment charges against Trump – for only the third time in history and the first time for a president seeking reelection – the limits of the proceedings for addressing misconduct were clear and the artifice became ever more apparent.
It was a trial in name only.
Senators on both sides openly prejudged the case. Questions were not spontaneous. The lawyers knew them in advance and were prepared with answers that even included slideshows.
The senators, muzzled in the chamber for much of the time, rushed to TV cameras to deliver their opinions on what they had just heard, unlike a jury that would be sequestered and forbidden to discuss the case.
New facts or documents were not introduced into evidence. No witnesses were called, unlike in the Andrew Johnson and Clinton impeachment trials.
Questions of fact and law were put to the prosecutors and defense lawyers, who gave self-serving answers, rather than to the person in the room most suited to the task, Chief Justice John Roberts.
Roberts had only limited say in the proceeding’s substantive matters and little appetite for more, in deference to the elected representatives. Though not a supplicant, he was more of a moderator than a jurist.
The president chose his lawyers in part for how he thought they would look on television, an acknowledgment that the audience that mattered to him – his base – was outside the room.
There was ringing rhetoric about the meaning of words on sepia-toned parchment from the 1700s and in 2019 text messages from the smartphones of all the president’s men.
The Federalist Papers and the contemporary record of a president pressing another country for a political favor were all part of this continuum.
Yet those arguments were in the realm of theater rather than of justice.
In the parlance of Washington and these times, everyone was “playing a role.”
With Alexander Hamilton taking a star turn again, like on Broadway.