Take Care is pleased to host a symposium on To End A Presidency: The Power of Impeachment—a new book by Larry Tribe & Joshua Matz. This is the opening essay. Additional contributions will follow over the next 12 days.
“Impeachment haunts Trumpland.” So begins our latest book together, To End A Presidency: The Power of Impeachment. But while the book opens with Trump, it concludes with a far more fundamental message. On the very last page, we identify “transcending forces of decay, disinformation, and disunion” as the “great national calling of our time.” To that end, we warn that a savvy defense of democracy itself must be “the North Star that [guides] decisions about ending or enduring disastrous presidencies.”
For both of us, this shift in emphasis reflects the process of writing the book. It is no great secret that American political discourse has been hyper-saturated with impeachment talk since Trump took office. Our initial interest in the subject flowed, in large part, from involvement in legal and political opposition to several of Trump’s most egregious abuses of power. As early as Spring 2017, it was clear that the American public would spend the coming years immersed in debates over impeachment. We were keen to understand the promise and perils of that political reality.
A deep dive into impeachment, however, broadened our vision and sharpened our analysis. We came to appreciate that the ultimate question in any impeachment inquiry is not whether the president committed offenses justifying removal under the standard set forth in the Constitution (“Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”). That is an important issue, to be sure, and one that must be addressed in good faith rather than by sole reference to cynical political calculus. But it is only the tip of the iceberg. Instead, the ultimate question is whether invoking the impeachment process and ending a presidency this way is the best path forward for the Republic. Perhaps inconveniently, the Constitution itself doesn’t get one very far in answering that question. Only through a thoughtful and well-informed exercise of political judgment can we assess calls to remove a president from office.
Viewed this way, the story of impeachment reaches far beyond debates over what presidential conduct might theoretically justify removal. It encompasses the convoluted, traumatic process of an impeachment, from the earliest whispers of presidential wrongdoing to a final vote in the Senate and an uncertain aftermath. It involves and intermingles complex questions of law, politics, sociology, and institutional design. And it sweeps beyond the confines of any single impeachment case, demanding attention to historical patterns in impeachment talk and the indeterminate consequences that impeachment might have for the very foundations of our democracy.
Approaching impeachment from this panoramic perspective, we divided our inquiry into six parts, each constituting its own chapter:
Throughout the book, we emphasize the steady importance of exercising good judgment at moments of crisis. This isn’t a subject that lends itself to easy answers. Nor can it be reduced to a study of original understanding. The Constitution leaves the fate of the American experiment in our hands, gambling that we will recognize and rally against presidential tyranny.
If the American people are to prove worthy of that wager, they must strive for a well-informed understanding of the constitutional system. These days, however, fantastical thinking about impeachment is on the rise. Too many Americans view ending Trump’s presidency as a magic wand that will solve all our problems; too many others view calls for impeachment as nothing but a prelude to civil war. In these tumultuous times, it is vital for the public to develop a clear-eyed, realistic understanding of impeachment’s proper role. Soon enough, we may all have to decide how best to deal with a rogue president, recognizing that impeachment has the extraordinary potential to either heal or devastate our democratic system and the freedoms it protects.
We will stop there, urging interested readers to buy the book.
We are deeply grateful to the scholars who have participated in this Take Care symposium. We look forward to learning from them and engaging with their ideas, and we appreciate their willingness to reflect carefully on our book.