Yoni Appelbaum's longread in The Atlantic on the case for impeaching Trump draws on heterodox interpretations of the Clinton and Johnson impeachments, as well as the Nixon impeachment, to argue that despite (or even because of) the Senate's near-certain inaction on impeachment, there are real benefits to impeaching Trump, which is looking very likely if accusations of suborning perjury before Congress are true.
Appelbaum argues that history's verdict on the Clinton and Johnson impeachments — that they were divisive, partisan exercises that did more harm than good — is misguided. Rather than viewing impeachment as a denergous constitution-undermining exercise that weakens the institution of the presidency, Appelbaum says that the framers wouldn't have put impeachment into the Constitution if it wasn't part of the normal functioning of a Constitutional democracy, a check on an otherwise imperial presidency (and incidentally, he argues that the presidency has grown increasingly imperial and is overdue for a good trimming).
In addition to making a case that impeachment is itself a reasonable action under some circumstances, Appelbaum makes the fairly easy case that we are living through those circumstances right now, reciting a greatest hits of Trump's many qualifying sins.
Then he gets to the interesting part: we know that the Senate isn't going to do anything about a successful impeachment of Trump by the Democrats in Congress, so what's the point?
According to Appelbaum, history teaches us that impeaching a president has five major benefits even if they are not removed from office: it changes the way that the press covers the issue, switching from letting the president set a fearmongering agenda to piecing together a coherent narrative of the president's unfitness; it sidelines the president's agenda and forces them to focus on the impeachment; it moves away from the piecemeal Congressional committee investigations of individual scandals and puts the focus on the big picture of how they all fit together; it channels public and governmental anger with the government into a peaceful and lawful system of redressing grievances, forestalling potential political violence; and it permanently damages the impeached president's political prospects, putting them under a cloud for the rest of their political lives.
And what if the Senate does not convict Trump? The fifth benefit of impeachment is that, even when it fails to remove a president, it severely damages his political prospects. Johnson, abandoned by Republicans and rejected by Democrats, did not run for a second term. Nixon resigned, and Gerald Ford, his successor, lost his bid for reelection. Clinton weathered the process and finished out his second term, but despite his personal popularity, he left an electorate hungering for change. "Many, including Al Gore, think that the impeachment cost Gore the election," Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior member of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's team, told me. "So it has consequences and resonates outside the narrow four corners of impeachment." If Congress were to impeach Trump, whatever short-term surge he might enjoy as supporters rallied to his defense, his long-term political fate would likely be sealed.
In these five ways—shifting the public's attention to the president's debilities, tipping the balance of power away from him, skimming off the froth of conspiratorial thinking, moving the fight to a rule-bound forum, and dealing lasting damage to his political prospects—the impeachment process has succeeded in the past. In fact, it's the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it's a process that should be triggered only when a president's betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump's conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act.
Impeach Donald Trump [Yoni Appelbaum/The Atlantic]