The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Now that the (first?) impeachment of Donald J. Trump has come to its inevitable conclusion, it is worth reflecting on how the House managed the process of putting the president on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors. Over at Lawfare, I picked through the rubble.
How the Senate performed its part of the impeachment drama will likely have long-term consequences as well. It was hardly a perfect trial, and if Susan Collins seriously thought the president would be chastened by how things turned out she has certainly had more opportunities to ponder Trump's essential nature. I still find it hard to believe that Trump liked telling the story of the snake during the 2016 campaign, and that his supporters did not pause to contemplate his punchline: "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in." Perhaps it is just me, since the story of the snake reminds me of the similar story of the scorpion and the frog and its even more Trumpian punchline: "I can't help it. It's my character." But Senator Collins can't keep herself from playing the frog.
But before the articles of impeachment ever reached the Senate and before it became evident the lengths the Republican majority would go to sweep the Ukrainian fiasco under the rug, the House made a mess of the impeachment process. Rather than attempting to rise above partisanship, the Democrats at every turn made the impeachment more partisan. Rather than taking care to move through the process of impeaching a president deliberately and cautiously, they stumbled through a chaotic process that gave the White House unearned talking points. Rather than laying out a clear and coherent narrative for the public that justified taking the dramatic step of passing these two articles of impeachment and asking the Senate to remove a sitting president from office, the House struggled to nail down the points it did attempt to make and did not bother to present the public case for others. The internal politics of the Democratic coalition undoubtedly played a role in shaping how the impeachment process was conducted, but the number of unforced errors is striking.
It seems unlikely that even in the aftermath of this impeachment, the House will refrain from going after presidents again. And the House should be willing to impeach a president when events justify doing so, despite the political challenges of moving an impeachment through the House let alone winning a conviction in the Senate. But future congressional leaders should take some lessons from this process and not embark on an impeachment unless they can do a better job of it than the Democrats did this time around.
Here's a taste:
The House sent mixed signals about the need for immediate action against the president. It chose to rush the process of producing articles of impeachment but then ostentatiously refused to deliver the articles to the Senate so as to start the trial. It struggled to identify the strategic goals of the impeachment and, as a result, was left with a mismatch between the facts that could be demonstrated and the cataclysmic rhetoric that was meant to justify the president's immediate removal.