The First Second Impeachment: Historic, or a ‘Footnote’?



The First Second Impeachment: Historic, or a ‘Footnote’?

“If the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were sitting today as jurors in the Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, one thing seems certain based on the historical record,” Vanderbilt University historian Eli Merritt argues in The New York Times, as the Senate commences Trump’s second impeachment trial. “Acting with vigor and dispatch, they would cast two near unanimous votes: first, to convict the president of an impeachable offense, and second, to disqualify him from holding future federal office.”

The founders believed ardently in impeachment as a remedy, and in a chief executive’s unchecked self-interest as a potential threat to the republic, Merritt writes. But despite that moral clarity, a sense of anti-climax hovers elsewhere. Trump now “accounts for half of all presidential impeachments,” The Economist notes, nodding to the moment’s historicity. But while “[t]he evidence against him is perhaps even more damning this time than last,” the magazine writes, “his hold on his party is just as strong, and there is little reason to expect a different outcome” from his first acquittal last year. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may have flirted with “dump[ing] Trump,” as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer put it—but The Economist sees GOP senators reverting to a Trump-era mean.

Given that acquittal may be “a foregone conclusion,” the Financial Times’ Courtney Weaver suggests the trial may amount to a mere “footnote.” As historian Jeffrey Engel of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History tells Weaver, “We’re not going to remember Trump for being impeached for inciting a riot and sedition. ?.?.?.? We’re going to remember him for inciting a riot and sedition.”

Unsolved Mystery: Free Speech After Trump

The defense offered by President Trump’s impeachment lawyers is expected to center on free speech, writes The New Yorker’s Steve Coll—the notion being that in the US, one is free to espouse views (including about elections) that are unpopular, and that Trump didn’t incite violence in the traditional, explicit sense. Regardless of the trial’s outcome, Coll writes that all need to square their thinking on who’s allowed to say what.

“[T]he serious emergency that Trump created after losing in November is proving difficult to enclose,” Coll writes. “Will Trump really be banned from all major social-media platforms forever? On what ground, and on whose authority? … There can be little doubt that policies which suppress Trumpian voices will eventually be used to suppress other voices. Even before the 2020 election, DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist who helped organize protests against the police killing of Alton Sterling, in Louisiana, had been taken to court by a police officer who claimed that he was responsible for injuries the officer allegedly sustained in a rock-throwing incident, even though Mckesson had not been involved in any violence himself.”

The country risks repeating past overreactions against free speech in tense times, Coll writes. “[A] path to politics and public policy that neither enables Trumpian assaults … nor undermines the radical American experiment in free speech will be very hard to find. It is necessary nonetheless.”


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