The U.S. House has impeached two U.S. presidents in the past — Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson — and prepared articles of impeachment against another — Richard Nixon. The Senate declined to convict the former two. In Nixon's case, it didn't get the chance before he resigned. The Clinton impeachment was so disastrous that few lawmakers are eager to return to the constitutionally prescribed remedy for egregiously bad or corrupt presidents. But as this partial government shutdown approaches its one-month mark, it seems impeachment isn't such a fringe idea anymore.
In the March issue of The Atlantic, senior editor and former history teacher Yoni Appelbaum makes a surprisingly persuasive argument that Congress has an urgent duty to impeach President Trump before he can further undermine "the very foundations of America's constitutional democracy." Impeachment is important to pursue even if the Senate fails to remove Trump, Appelbaum says, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) "Republican majority has shown little will to break with the president."
But doesn't this point to an easier, better remedy to this debacle? Just ditch McConnell.
Among his arguments, Appelbaum says Trump has drastically undermined the presidency. Federal judges consistently overturn his executive orders and "his own political appointees boast to reporters, or brag in anonymous op-eds, that they routinely work to counter his policies," he writes. "Congress is contemplating actions on trade and defense that will hem in the president."
But contemplation isn't the same thing as action, and McConnell isn't doing much of anything to wrest back the institutional power Congress has incrementally shed for 100 years. In fact, as wunderkind Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) noted on Wednesday, McConnell could almost single-handedly end the shutdown tomorrow if he brought House-passed legislation up for a vote — then, if necessary, up for a possible veto-override.
In late October, Christopher R. Browning, a historian who specializes in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, noted the similarities between Trump's governance and "the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe" in The New York Review of Books. "Trump seems intent on withdrawing the U.S. from the entire post–World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military, and economic agreements and organizations that have preserved peace, stability, and prosperity since 1945," and his "naive and narcissistic confidence in his own powers of personal diplomacy" with the authoritarians he openly admires recalls "the hapless Neville Chamberlain."
But just as Adolf Hitler came to power only with the aide of Weimar German President Paul von Hindenburg, whose conservatives believed "they could ultimately control Hitler while enjoying the benefits of his popular support," Trump isn't working in a vacuum, Browning writes. And "if the U.S. has someone whom historians will look back on as the gravedigger of American democracy, it is Mitch McConnell." He explains:
[McConnell] stoked the hyper-polarization of American politics to make the Obama presidency as dysfunctional and paralyzed as he possibly could. As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the U.S. has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more. Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments. ... One can predict that henceforth no significant judicial appointments will be made when the presidency and the Senate are not controlled by the same party. McConnell and our dysfunctional and disrespected Congress have now ensured an increasingly dysfunctional and disrespected judiciary, and the constitutional balance of powers among the three branches of government is in peril. [Christopher Browning, The New York Review of Books]
Trump is clearly pushing the limits of executive authority, revealing long-held bedrock tenets of the presidency to be mere custom and tradition. And while impeaching Trump would be terrible for Trump, as Appelbaum details, it would also be a new strain on this hyper-polarized country. On the flip side, a vigorous legislative branch would be salubrious for American democracy. A proud Congress would take this opportunity to reclaim some of its lost prerogative, redefine the relationship between the intended co-equal executive and the legislative branches of government, and check Trump's worst impulses. In this effort, Senate Republicans would have a willing partner in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
True, a Republican Senate not led by Mitch McConnell still probably wouldn't override Trump's veto of a bill protecting America's public lands or try to tackle climate change, but it might surely quash misguided trade wars, demand qualified Cabinet appointees, stop Trump from pulling out of NATO or other alliances that undergird America's pole position in the world pecking order, and prevent vanity government shutdowns. McConnell's deputy, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), knows that Trump's proposed wall along the Texas border would be a wasteful, land-grabbing boondoggle. Maybe he'd do something about that.
There's no mechanism for impeaching a senator, only expelling one, but McConnell is up for re-election in 2020 — and Republicans can replace him as their leader any time they want someone a little bolder and less deferential to Trump. Will they do that? Probably not, unless they become convinced that he's leading them into the political wilderness. But that's still more likely than a two-thirds majority of this Senate convicting Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Editor's note: This article originally mischaracterized the House of Representatives' impeachment efforts against Richard Nixon. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.