Impeachment Is a Permanent Stain on Trump’s Presidency

The inevitable acquittal in the Senate won’t annul a verdict that’s already been rendered.

Donald Trump frowns with a brown wall behind him.
President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

No American president has ever been impeached and convicted. That has never happened, not in the entire course of American history. Not ever, and not even once. I’m saying that in as many ways as I know how because I am sick of the “lol nothing matters” sentiment I saw in many quarters—even among those eager to see Trump face a consequence—as the House prepared to approve two articles of impeachment against the president. Now, the House has approved those articles. The president has been impeached. It is true that the Senate is unlikely to convict him. But far from constituting a unique failure, a result of impeachment with conviction would be utterly unprecedented in our history.

The idea that Trump not getting convicted after being impeached somehow proves the futility of the whole effort is bizarre. While it’s understandable that people are discouraged, this is a demoralized moving of goal posts to a definition of success that has never once actually been met. By this metric, no president has ever received a consequence. That’s nonsense. Impeachment is real; it is an outcome in its own right and an enormously damaging one; it will stain Trump’s presidency forever with an official vote of his unfitness. Democrats may be in the habit of narrating everything as a defeat in one way or another, but this is a huge, history-making deal. The voters’ wishes as expressed in 2018 are being honored; justice is being done to a president who refuses to be held accountable. Sometimes it’s OK to take the coming win.

To recognize the historic nature of these articles of impeachment doesn’t imply that impeachment will solve everything. Nor does it mean the sham of a process to follow should go uncriticized. One can and should condemn the announcements by so-called jurors of the trial to come, like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, stating that they will, with full premeditation, violate their obligation to judge the case impartially. Yes, they’re just going to vote for their guy, and they’ll protect him from any damning testimony from actual witnesses. Their willingness to state all this out loud is itself evidence: It’s a precise indication of just how lost the Republican Party is at present. An upside of their unconstitutional declarations is the extent to which it clarifies how compromised they are and how necessary this impeachment was: This is an out-of-control executive enabled by a flaccid Senate that can’t rise to a historical occasion that might have at least partially redeemed it. This is a body that has refused to hold a vote on hundreds of bills passed in the House to improve the lives of the people they serve, and one that has now sacrificed its seriousness on the altar of Trump’s pride. It’s a sad story about Republican weakness; all they can do is bow, scrape, and give still more of their power away to a man whose unfitness is manifest. Too tired and corrupt to govern, they’d rather just have him as king.

None of this is new, and none of it should surprise us. Of course they’d try to turn the story of their surrender into a story of Democratic weakness. What is surprising is the extent to which the left has bought into that framing. Somehow, despite the strength of the House, the force of the evidence, and the historic nature of these acts, Republicans have managed to convince many members of the media and the public that conviction is the only measure of what matters, with impeachment downgraded to a kind of lame-duck plea that somehow only confirms the House’s irrelevance. Again, we have only impeached two presidents in the entire history of this country. We have just impeached a third, an act that should be read as exactly what it is: a monumental rebuke. Don’t get it twisted: A failure to convict Trump in the upcoming trial does nothing to remove the black mark his impeachment casts on his presidency. The stain will be permanent.

I perfectly understand people’s worries. Bill Clinton is seen as having benefited from the Republican effort to impeach him; the partisan attempt to dredge up anything on the president left him more beloved than ever. But history is longer than next-day polling, and I have watched Clinton’s status as a statesman to whom Democrats point with pride diminishing along every axis for years. Impeachment is a stain that spreads. It is no exaggeration to say that Clinton’s—to the extent that it officially ratified the average American’s impression of the Clintons as corrupt thanks to steady reinforcement of Republican messaging—may have cost his wife the presidency.

Some seem to worry that every president will be impeached now; that Republicans will be hellbent on impeaching everyone who comes after and this will now become a way of life. This particular threat always amuses me, because Republicans have a gift for blaming Democrats for actions they were always going to take anyway, and Democrats too often believe them. Republicans were plotting to impeach Hillary Clinton before she was elected. There is no need to pretend that this discussion about the likelihood of future impeachments is happening in anything like good faith. Of course there will be impeachment efforts going forward; Republicans will do their best to camouflage the exceptional story of Trump’s sordid extortion by creating a backdrop filled with false equivalences. But they were always going to do that, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise, or to act like it’s a good reason to allow lawlessness. I’ll go further: If impeachment hearings are going to be the way things work from now on, I submit that it might not be the worst outcome. When you have a hypertrophied executive branch whose powers no one wants to curb, maybe a constant threat of a check, even in this degraded form, isn’t a bad thing.

As for impeachment’s long-term effects on legacy: It’s worth remembering that the efforts to impeach George W. Bush failed. The man brought us into the longest war in our history under false pretense—a war that has resulted in extraordinary loss of life (and cost American taxpayers $1 trillion). No official sanction was ever delivered. As a result, while Clinton’s star diminishes and everyone thinks a lot harder about predatory power dynamics and the merits of Juanita Broaddrick’s claims, Bush is thriving in his presidential afterlife, made cuddly by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama. Indeed, Republicans have successfully camouflaged the indescribable extent of his failure—and what he has cost not just America but the world—by making him seem, next to Trump, statesmanlike.

Don’t believe anyone who says no one cares about impeachment. You know who cares? The president. Who can’t stop tweeting about it, can’t stop obstructing, who penned a mewling screed to the speaker of the House and wants nothing more than a legacy untarnished by the truth of what he is. He won’t get that. That letter was—I’ll quote him—his “strongest and most powerful protest.” And it failed. A man who has cheated students and committed fraud and extorted governments is about to receive a consequence. History is being made, no matter how much the people he’s bringing down with him splash around in the pool trying to muddy the message. And there is a bonus: The American people have yet to truly understand how utterly compromised the Senate is—how treacherously and completely it has subordinated its interests to a billionaire’s. They’re about to.

Support This Work

Help us cover the central question: “Who counts?” Your Slate Plus membership will fund our work on voting, immigration, gerrymandering, and more through 2020.