It’s easy to forget what the Senate impeachment trial is supposed to be about.
It’s not a fight over whether the Senate will call a couple of witnesses that the House couldn’t, or didn’t bother to, obtain on its own.
The underlying question is whether the United States Senate will impose the most severe sanction it has ever inflicted on any chief executive, voting to remove a president for the first time in the history of the country and doing it about 10 months from his reelection bid.
This is a truly radical step that, if it ever came about, would do more damage to the legitimacy of our political system than President Donald Trump’s underlying offense.
If Trump were actually convicted, the 2020 election would proceed under a cloud of illegitimacy. Tens of millions of Trump voters wouldn’t accept the result. They’d see it as an inside job to deny the incumbent president a chance to run for reelection, without a single voter having a direct say. The GOP would be brought to its knees by internal bloodletting, a prospect that Democrats surely would welcome, especially given that it would deliver them the presidency. Republicans would be out for revenge, and instead of a halcyon return to normalcy, our politics would be even more poisonous than before.
What’s the countervailing upside? Democrats say that it is holding Trump accountable. But removal from office isn’t required for that.
Congressional oversight itself is, normally, thought of as a form of accountability. The House has held hearings that exposed, sometimes in vivid fashion, the Trump-Giuliani Ukraine scheme. Trump has seen officials working in his own government publicly criticize his conduct, and polls show that most of the public believe he did something wrong.
Democrats argue that Trump can’t stay in office because he’s such a threat to the integrity of our elections. But the portrayal of Trump’s Ukraine scheme as “election interference,” as the Democrats always say, is tendentious and inapt. If the Ukrainians had complied with the Trump team’s pressure to announce an investigation of the energy company Burisma, it wouldn’t have changed one vote in 2020, even if former Vice President Joe Biden eventually is the Democratic nominee.
Trump would have trumpeted such an investigation as proof of Biden corruption, but it’s not clear that this would have added anything material to his already fulsome allegations of Biden corruption.
The fact is that impeachment, as my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out, is a weak check on the presidency. It requires a supermajority of the country to remove a president and one of the political parties being willing to nullify the choice of its own voters for president and an election he won. Both the Trump and Clinton impeachments show that this is a hateful prospect for the president’s party.
The best case for what the Democrats are doing now is that Republicans impeached Clinton in the 1990s with little or no hope for conviction in the Senate, and turnabout is fair play. But it’s time to conclude that this is a failed model of impeachment. It constitutes a censure with bells and whistles, yet depends on a process that diverts the time and energy of the nation’s political institutions as if the survival of a presidency is at stake, even when everyone knows it isn’t.
Congress can hold hearings on a president’s conduct, subpoena witnesses and documents and fight the executive with full force if they aren’t produced, hold officials in contempt, produce reports, withhold funding, deny the executive traditional forms of interbranch comity and, if it wants to put down a long-lasting marker, censure the president.
But it needn’t drag the country through a melodrama based on the fiction that any president who hasn’t crashed to, say, a 25% approval rating is going to be removed by his own party — in other words, exactly what Adam Schiff and his managers are doing now.