WASHINGTON — The two impeachment articles against President Donald Trump focus on his attempts to pressure Ukraine and obstruct a congressional investigation.
Yet in the scope of time, the charges will be remembered as a much broader statement about his presidency and conduct, historical experts predicted in the aftermath of Wednesday’s House vote to impeach a president for only the third time.
Even if Trump is unlikely to be removed from office, and may yet be reelected, the impeachment articles will, in years to come, serve as a marker of a president who has disregarded democratic guardrails, tried to use his power for personal and political ends, and trafficked in vicious attacks and routine lies, presidential scholars said.
“This presidency was different. Maybe the republic didn’t collapse, maybe democracy didn’t unravel, but we sure felt as if we had a madman flying the airplane.”
“There needs to be a way of saying, ‘This presidency was different.' Maybe the republic didn’t collapse, maybe democracy didn’t unravel, but we sure felt as if we had a madman flying the airplane,” said David Greenberg, a Rutgers University history professor who has written a book about Richard Nixon. “To impeach him is a way of just kind of recording that. Yes, for the Ukraine deal in particular, but also as a general marker that this presidency and its offenses should not be forgotten.”
Those offenses, in the eyes of many, have consistently coursed through Trump’s candidacy and presidency — from his payments for a porn star’s silence to his frequent embrace of flimsy conspiracy theories to his refusal to disclose his tax returns to his attempts to disrupt investigations, including by law enforcement, while trying to sic the Justice Department on his rivals, to name a few. On the night of the impeachment vote, he joked at a rally in Michigan that a Democratic congressman who died in February after long representing the state might be resting in hell.
Those actions weren’t part of the charges against him. But they exemplify the kind of behavior and attitude that impeachment will illuminate for future generations, Greenberg said.
“Everybody knows he’s going to be acquitted [by the Senate], so it’s almost like they’re doing this only for history,” he said. “It’s a way of flagging it, of putting a big highlight, underscore, Post-it note on that page in the book and saying, ‘This counts, this is a big deal.' "
Of course, Greenberg also acknowledged that Trump’s long-term legacy is difficult to assess with certainty just days after the impeachment vote and with events still unfolding. Trump has long defied elite disdain and predictions, and he may still have years in office to shape his story. He has predicted that Democrats will be the ones bearing black marks in history books.
There have been so few presidential impeachments it’s difficult to forecast whether this vote will be a piece of Trump’s record, or a cloud that shrouds all of it.
But Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said impeachment is so powerful and rare it will overshadow even the strong economy and relative peace Trump has overseen, and draw the focus to his wider aberrational conduct.
“I don’t think he’s going to escape it, even if he’s reelected,” Zelizer said. “Even the way this is framed allows people looking back at what happened to look at the whole constellation of problems that emerged in this presidency.”
Trump was elected in large part because supporters wanted someone who didn’t care about the old rules and institutional strictures, and the actions leading to his impeachment stemmed from just that instinct, said Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Yet the polarized nature of the country, with its drastically different views of Trump, raises questions about whether a public consensus will emerge.
Trump is almost certain to be acquitted in the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority, so much could hinge on the 2020 election, when voters will offer their own verdict.
Trump would be the first president to seek a second term after being impeached. A reelection could be seen as the ultimate vindication.
His supporters believe he will be remembered as a president unfairly maligned by Democrats and a media cabal that hates him — and hates the tens of millions who voted for him. Those actors, they argue, will be the ones stained in history, and who will suffer the consequences in the next election.
“This lawless partisan impeachment is a political suicide march for the Democrat Party,” Trump said at his rally in Battle Creek, Mich., on Wednesday night, shortly after the gavel fell on the House vote.
His campaign said it raised $5 million that day, a sign, they argued, of how the charges galvanized supporters.
“Voters will never forget that Democrats have been triggered into impeaching the president because they don’t like him and they don’t like us," said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.). "Those who vote yes on today’s articles of impeachment must carry the heavy burden of shame and guilt for as long as they serve in Congress.”
History has been unkind to the first two presidents who faced the prospect of removal.
Andrew Johnson is almost exclusively remembered for being impeached. Richard Nixon, who resigned in the face of a near-certain impeachment, remains synonymous with Watergate, the scandal that still serves as the measuring stick for controversies, and left the “-gate” suffix as the stamp of misbehavior.
Yet for the most recent president to face impeachment, Bill Clinton, the charges left a mixed legacy.
He left office as a hugely popular figure riding a successful economy. He is still treated as an elder statesman who receives rapturous ovations at Democratic events (though his behavior may yet be reassessed after the #MeToo movement changed the way American culture views sexual harassment).
Still, while many believe Clinton’s impeachment backfired on Republicans, it left a mark that will always follow him, Zelizer said.
The story at the center of that impeachment, Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his blatant lies about it, crystallized “the ick factor” that trailed the president, Greenberg said.
There are critical differences between Clinton and Trump, though.
Public support for Trump’s impeachment is far higher than Clinton’s. Around half of the public supports removing Trump from office, and about an equal share opposes the idea, numerous polls have found. Nearly two-thirds opposed Clinton’s impeachment. There is also a difference in the conduct: Clinton was accused of lying under oath about an extramarital affair. Trump is charged with abusing his office and undermining national security interests.
Perry, of the Miller Center, suggested another possibility that could shape how Trump’s impeachment is perceived.
It may be seen as less of a stain if, in the hyper-polarized political climate, impeachment turns from a drastic measure to a regular feature of partisan combat.
“If it becomes a norm, it might be viewed as less historic,” she said.
In that scenario, Trump might not be seen as a rare outlier to face impeachment, but as the first example of a new trend.