- - Wednesday, February 3, 2021

As the Senate prepares for the fourth presidential impeachment trial — in this case, of an ex-president — there seems little doubt Donald Trump will be acquitted along partisan lines. But while acquittal may be a foregone conclusion, the issues are critical to the health of our democracy and the meaning of the Constitution.

Democrats will argue that Mr. Trump’s status as a non-office holder does not obviate a trial, and that his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol incursion warrants a conviction and exclusion from holding office ever again. The ex-president’s new defense team will dispute these points on the premise Mr. Trump, who continues to falsely claim the November election was stolen, should not be held responsible for the violent actions of his supporters.

As it has been since the first presidential impeachment trial in 1868, there remains no consensus on what constitutes an impeachable offense. The process is political, and in today’s hyper-partisan environment convincing members of Congress to change their minds — or even agree on the facts — seems impossible.

Today’s political tribalism differs from the Watergate era in that a significant number of Republicans ultimately dropped their loyalty to Nixon and voted for impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee. Nixon likely would have become the first president to be removed from office had he not resigned following the disclosure of the smoking gun audiotapes. 

Since Watergate, impeachment has become a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of many presidents, even if efforts at removal did not always materialize. Talk of impeachment rose during the Iran-Contra scandal in Ronald Reagan’s second term, and some Democrats floated the idea of trying to impeach George W. Bush over the invasion of Iraq. In 1998, House Republicans impeached President William J. Clinton because he lied to a federal grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In Episode 6 of History As It Happens, historian and media expert David Greenberg of Rutgers University said impeachment has not necessarily been broken by overuse. Instead, he believes extreme partisanship and competing media narratives made it impossible for Congress to reach a consensus on Mr. Trump’s culpability. 

“What’s significant about Nixon’s resignation… is we’ve come a long way from when the Republican Party was willing to acknowledge such behavior on the part of their own president, their own party leader, and today when very few Republicans are willing to do so,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg drafted an open letter, signed by about 1,000 scholars and constitutional experts, calling on Congress to impeach Mr. Trump for “egging on” the Jan. 6 mob. He chose to leave out the word incitement.

“That has a precise legal definition that can be debated. Certainly, he did a lot to provoke it, encourage it, and certainly didn’t do much to stop it,” Greenberg said. “We talk about what is unprecedented, and that is something historians can speak to with authority. What Trump had done truly was unprecedented.”

Watergate dragged on for more than two years, with Nixon’s presidency ultimately collapsing on the disclosure of the audiotapes proving he had been lying all along about his role in the coverup. In 1974, there existed fewer media outlets that would rush to Nixon’s defense by trying to convince the public he did not really participate in a criminal scheme. But even partisan media outlets eventually came around to the idea Nixon had broken the law because the facts were no longer in dispute, Greenberg said.

“You did have magazines like the National Review which were conservative in their ideology and fairly partisan in their defense of the Republican Party. But what’s interesting when you look back at the coverage is a lot of those National Review writers, who were pretty steadfast in Nixon’s corner, end up defecting, end up listening to the evidence that he lied,” Greenberg said.

Today, by contrast, influential media outlets on the right continue to stand by Mr. Trump, depicting him as the victim of partisan persecution while minimizing his failed attempt to overturn an election he lost.

“This is a problem of trying to judge the present moment,” Greenberg said. “As events recede into history, partisan interpretations tend to fall away… and often a consensus does form about what was right and wrong. In the current moment, it is much harder to arrive at that kind of consensus.”

Consensus has even proved impossible to reach when seemingly incontrovertible evidence surfaces, such as Mr. Trump’s early January phone call in which he asked Georgia election officials to find “11,870 votes… because we won the state.” Indeed, polls continue to show significant numbers of Republican voters believe the election was stolen despite the lack of any evidence of widespread voter fraud.

“We can’t know what history will say about Donald Trump and Democrats’ desire to impeach him. To me, even as I try to separate my politics from my historical judgment, it does seem very likely that historians in the future will fully understand why Democrats felt compelled to impeach Trump a second time,” Greenberg said.

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