Politics

Why Impeachment Is Still Worth the Trouble

Donald Trump waves from the door of Air Force One.
Donald Trump in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

On the most recent episode of Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick spoke with Dan Goldman, who spearheaded the first round of impeachment hearings for Donald Trump in the House in December 2019 as the senior adviser and director of investigations for the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. They discussed whether all the time and money poured into that impeachment was futile and why it was worth it to do it all again. A portion of their conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, is transcribed below.

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Dahlia Lithwick: After the original hearings, you essentially handed the keys of impeachment to the House managers, and they went on for a trial that was clearly going to end in acquittal. I think we can say, after the vote this week in the Senate, that’s where this one is going, too. And so, just as a matter of initial inquiry: Was it worth it to plow through with all that? Was it worth the time, and the expense, and the recriminations, and the drama? Does any part of you think it was futile?

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Dan Goldman: No, I don’t. I think it was important to do for several reasons. One, it was the right thing to do, and sometimes you just have to do the right thing, even if it’s futile, even if it’s hard, even if it won’t accomplish the ultimate goal that you hope to accomplish. Two, I do think it had an impact on the election year. It had less of an impact that I think it would have because of COVID, and when COVID hit shortly after impeachment, it just kind of blew everything else out of the water and became the central issue in the election. But I do think that there was value in putting people on record as to whether they condoned activity or opposed activity by a president that should not occur. And then the final thing is there’s historical value in it, and I think when people look back at it, even as they do now with this second impeachment, people look with a fresh eye and they think, “Huh, OK. We had our chance, maybe we should’ve used it.” And so, I do think it will teach future leaders, future representatives, future citizens, about what is right and what is wrong, and provide some guardrails that hopefully will be adhered to in the future.

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I do want to ask you, which is slightly connected to your very last reason for why we do this: Was your visceral reaction to the events of Jan. 6 some version of, “We put this on the record. I’m glad we did the impeachment because we made it clear to all of the people who didn’t know this was coming that we knew it was coming”? Was there some sense in watching the events that you were vindicated by all that?

The “We told you so” mentality?

I wasn’t going to say it that way. I was trying to dress it up nicer, but yeah. Do you have a little “I told you so”?

So there’s a little bit of that in there, and mostly in the sense that, and this really dates back to my decade as a prosecutor: People don’t learn lessons when they get away with bad behavior. And so, the idea that somehow Donald Trump had learned his lesson because he was impeached and then acquitted in the Senate was really far-fetched.

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And in addition, there was another element of it: As you’ll recall, there were several Republican senators at the time who said that they felt we proved our case but that it was really up to the citizens and the voters to make that decision, because we were so close to an election. Well, Donald Trump tried to overturn the will of the voters, and a number of the senators and congressmen in the Republican Party kind of went along with it, and that, to me, was even beyond the pale of anything that we foreshadowed. And Adam Schiff, I think, did a brilliant job of trying to make that case—that this is not just about this particular case, this is about a human being who would do something like this, and will continue to do something like this. When he failed in cheating to win the election, as the impeachment really somewhat curtailed his ability to do that, then he just moved on to stealing the election. And I think that’s what this impeachment is about, and I don’t know that anyone would’ve necessarily anticipated it, but I was not surprised. And spending so much time drilling down on the actions and the psyche of Donald Trump, as I did over the course of the year plus that I was there, I sadly was not surprised that he was doing this.

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As we look ahead toward the second impeachment trial, I want to ask you to make your best case for why we can’t do this reckoning in some other fashion. Tim Kaine and Susan Collins are talking about censure. There’s a lot of folks out there who are saying, “Why can’t we just have criminal trials for the actual insurrectionists, and leave Donald Trump out of this?” There’s an immense amount of pressure to move forward, to do COVID, to do the economy, to fix the environment. This is expensive, it is time consuming. What’s your best argument for why all of those other resolutions aren’t sufficient? And why can’t we just ignore him? He’s gone. What’s the best argument for doing this thing that, I think we agree, is going to end up with an acquittal in the face of all these other lesser, less costly, less polarizing, forward-looking interventions?

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I think that there are a couple of concepts that are critical here. One is deterrence; one is a moral compulsion within our democracy to lay down a marker that this kind of anti-democratic, authoritarian conduct will not be accepted in the future; and finally, you’ve got to put everyone on record as to whether they think this kind of behavior is OK or it’s not OK. And the greatest metric to hold anyone accountable is what we saw actually in November, and Donald Trump was voted out of office. That is ultimately, the greatest threat that every politician has, and if Donald Trump is gone, he should never be able to run again because of his conduct, but it’s also a message to anyone else, not just Donald Trump, but anyone else who’s considering doing something like this in the future, that if you do, it’s been done before, you will be swiftly removed from office.

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And so, there is a measure of accountability, there’s a measure of justice, and there’s a measure of deterrence to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. And then the final point is there’s a message to the world that we need to send, which is that what happened on Jan. 6 is not what our country is about, and we have taken action to isolate the individual primarily responsible for it and disqualify him from ever serving again.

To hear their entire discussion, listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, OvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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