When historians look back at this era, their curiosity will settle not on the question of why the House impeached President Trump, but why it impeached him for this particular offense. Trump has spent three years violating laws and norms, and nearly a year has passed since Democrats took their majority, having no intention of delving into impeachment. Their likely answer will be that Trump’s scheme to extort Ukraine for investigations of his domestic opponents became in the minds of his opposition both an example and a symbol of his boundless sense of Constitutional impunity.
When the first hard evidence of Trump’s most recent scheme emerged, even his staunchest supporters had trouble defending his actions. “If the president said, ‘I will give you the money but you have got to investigate Joe Biden,’ that is really off-the-rails wrong,” said Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy, who normally maintains a relationship with Trump as close as Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy. After Trump released the patently incriminating transcript of his call with Ukraine’s president, Ohio Republican Mike Turner scolded him, “I want to say to the president, ‘This is not okay.’”
Trump could probably have avoided impeachment by acknowledging error. Bill Clinton issued a public apology for misleading the country about his affair (though Republicans impeached him anyway). The Reagan administration was exposed in a far more serious scheme to evade a Congressional restriction on military aid to the Contras. President Reagan cooperated with four investigations of the scandal, and, even though the scheme was probably undertaken without his knowledge or approval, publicly apologized. Even though he remained a fervent champion of the Contras, Reagan did not question Congress’s right to appropriate or deny funding. (Incidentally, the Iran-Contra scandal poses a striking contrast with Trump’s border wall, in which he responded to Congress’s denial by unilaterally impounding funds, arrogating for himself a power Reagan never would have dreamed to claim.)
The importance of those apologies is evident only in retrospect. They show that the president accepts limits on his own power, and grants the premise that his powers are legally bounded. The importance of this concession was not fully apparent at the time because the assumptions underlying them were shared so broadly that they were taken for granted. Nobody imagined a president who would flout it openly.
Yesterday, a reporter asked Trump if he accepts any responsibility at all for the events that have led to his impeachment. “No,” he replied, “I don’t take any. Zero. To put it mildly.” While Trump has obscured, quibbled with, or lied about the evidence of his misconduct, he has also straightforwardly defended his prerogative to do exactly what he is accused of. When asked in October what he wanted Ukraine to do, Trump told reporters it should “start an investigation into the Bidens,” and that China should do the same. (This destroys the ludicrous defense that Trump held up aid and a meeting merely because he was concerned about “corruption” in Ukraine.) That same month, Trump tweeted that he has an “absolute right” to ask any country to investigate any American for any reason he sees fit.
Of all the words that have been uttered throughout this saga, none have more significance than “absolute right.” Trump’s belief in his absolute right mean all his niggling defenses are pretexts — his defense would stand even if he grants every charge made against him.
This is not mere bluster. While his attempt to use military aid as leverage was foiled, Trump has continued to run his “irregular channel” of mafia-style diplomacy in Ukraine. Rudy Giuliani has spent months openly saying that he is negotiating with Ukraine in his capacity as Trump’s personal attorney rather than a representative of the U.S. government. Giuliani visited the White House again days ago, and received yet another public endorsement from the president. He confirmed to reporters yesterday that he is working at Trump’s behest.
All this has happened as two of Trump’s associates have been arrested, Giuliani himself has become the target of a federal investigation, and prosecutors asserted that his client was paid $1 million by a notorious Russian mobster known to be closely allied with Vladimir Putin. This is Trump’s defiant response to the Russia investigation. He has outsourced U.S. foreign policy to criminals being paid by Kremlin agents.
Both the president’s critics and his supporters have attributed this sort of behavior to his character. The positive gloss chalks it up to the pugilism of an outer-borough brawler, while critics attribute it to Trump’s narcissistic personality disorder. But there is also a strong ideological cast to the president’s position, a worldview that is shared by a widening circle of Republican figures who may not share, or even approve of, his temperament and personal style.
That worldview is reflected in Trump’s six-page diatribe published yesterday, which rejected any legitimate Constitutional role for Congress to impeach him or for him to cooperate with any oversight, and implicitly claimed for Trump himself the right to determine if any of his acts are impeachable or worthy of investigation. (That the letter was reportedly crafted, or at least assembled, over more than a week with the involvement of several of his aides shows that it was no mere tantrum but also a reflection of shared principle.) That worldview is echoed as well in a series of speeches made by Attorney General William Barr, which presented Democrats as a fundamentally illegitimate and sinister force subverting religion, the Constitution and the culture. And it is reflected as well in a famous 2016 essay by Michael Anton, who later joined the administration, depicting Trump’s election as a last chance (the “Flight 93 Election”) to save the country from destruction.
All these texts share key aspects. They are laced with self-pity, presenting themselves and their movement as the pitiful victims of an all-powerful left. They implicitly or explicitly reject traditional politics as a method of redress. They instead describe a millennial conflict in which final victory must be won quickly to stave off total collapse. Trump has cowed opposition within his party because his beliefs about power are not just a personal tic but a worldview that has overtaken the Republican Party.
Trump’s extraordinary refusal to acknowledge any oversight role for Congress whatsoever, his claim of an “absolute right” to do something even his allies recently considered improper forced Democrats to accept that they had to impeach him simply to assert that his twisted authoritarian vision of the presidency is wrong.
Democrats have wisely grasped that the right’s frantic apocalypticism cannot be met in kind. Impeachment is not going to result in Trump’s removal — not even if Trump was caught on tape taking money from Russian oligarchs will his party declare him unfit. Impeachment serves a symbolic purpose of marking limits to the president’s power. It is no emptier than the Inauguration Day transfer of power from a departing president to his successor. It is a ritual that means nothing and everything. Breathing life and meaning into the republican values they are fighting to save will come in November. There will never be a final victory over Trumpism, just the persistent work of democratic politics.