Now the alarming significance of Trump’s actions is far more obvious. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has escalated into an all-out invasion. That once-obscure president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is an international hero leading a surprisingly successful counteroffensive, thanks in large part to US military aid.
But in 2019 the impeachment of Trump never seized America’s attention the way President Richard Nixon’s hearings did. By the time Trump was acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate in February 2020, the outcome seemed inevitable.
Trump’s second impeachment in 2021, on charges of fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol siege, was more easily grasped but came to the same end: his acquittal, largely along party lines.
A new book — by reporters Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian, who covered the impeachments for Politico and The Washington Post — digs deep to ask whether the outcome of Trump’s impeachments was as preordained as it seemed. It is a timely reflection, as the special committee on Jan. 6 moves to wrap up its investigation.
To those groaning at the appearance of another Trump book, rest assured: “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump” is more about Congress than the presidency.
It’s a searing blow-by-blow critique of how Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and others in Congress handled two historic challenges to Trump. With lots of insider scoops along the way, the authors conclude that both parties “botched” the proceedings because political considerations kept them from doing all they could to hold Trump accountable.
Republicans troubled by the president’s actions got cold feet because they worried about a backlash from Trump; that much was conventional wisdom. But more provocatively, the authors argue that Democrats were too cautious and pulled punches to protect the party’s most vulnerable members in swing districts where attacking Trump was risky.
“Trump escaped accountability not simply because his own party wouldn’t stand up to him, but because the opposing party was also afraid to flex the full force of its constitutional muscle to check him,” the authors write. “Republicans didn’t just block and sabotage impeachment — Democrats never went all in, fumbling their best chance to turn the American public away from Trump for good.”
The first impeachment gets more in-depth treatment. It was supposed to be the book’s sole focus. After Jan. 6, the authors expanded its scope to include the second impeachment.
They detail how, after Democrats won control of the House in 2018, the party was torn by debates, turf battles and personality conflicts about when and how to proceed against Trump.
Pelosi was slower to embrace impeachment than many progressives wanted. The authors portray the House speaker as driven by concern about keeping the House majority, in part because she saw how the Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton boomeranged and hurt them in the 1998 elections. She also knew it wouldn’t succeed without bipartisan support.
But Pelosi and other reluctant Democrats came to support an impeachment inquiry in response to bombshell news that Trump had leaned on Zelensky to initiate corruption investigations into Biden, at a time when the administration was withholding military aid to Ukraine.
Pelosi pushed for a comparatively quick impeachment, focused on Ukraine. Other Democrats such as Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (NY) sought, unsuccessfully, a broader corruption investigation, potentially including court fights to call uncooperative witnesses.
The authors argue that the narrow, expedited approach made it harder to move public opinion and gave Republicans an opening to shelve qualms about Trump and oppose impeachment on procedural grounds: They complained that it was rushed, didn’t give Trump due process and was politically motivated.
Even when Trump faced allegations more serious and immediate after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the second impeachment founded. Republicans, initially shaken, quickly rallied to Trump, who was out of office by the time of the Senate trial. Democrats decided against a prolonged trial in part because it risked derailing Joe Biden’s new presidency.
This account poses a lot of unknowable “what ifs.” Could Democrats have done anything different to change the outcome? Color me skeptical. Democrats might have laid out a more complete and compelling record of Trump’s abuse of power if they had taken more time and called more witnesses. But they could not have convicted Trump as long as Republicans stuck by their man.
About the only “what if” that indisputably could have made a difference was if McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, and other Republicans had been willing to stand up to Trump. If the ransacking of the Senate chamber was not enough to turn them, it’s hard to imagine that additional witnesses or revelations would have.
A public outcry might have pressured Republicans, but the public seems immovable when it comes to Trump. That was underlined by the reaction to this summer’s hearings by the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6, which dramatized in startling detail Trump’s role in fomenting the insurrection.
Those proceedings had everything the impeachments lacked: firsthand witnesses; bipartisan leadership; compelling prime-time storytelling; the luxury of operating without a deadline. Still, the public was largely unmoved, according to surveys such as the Monmouth poll. The panel’s longer, more probing inquiry may, however, help move the legal system by stepping up pressure on the Justice Department. The department has already acted decisively to bring Trump to heel on his handling of sensitive documents — and may yet hold him to account for his conduct on Jan. 6.
The authors’ biggest worry is that the Trump impeachments left Congress weakened, with its most important means of checking presidential power eroded, at risk of being a mere “political messaging tool.”
That erosion began when Republicans in 1998 impeached Clinton for lying about his relationship with a White House intern.
There’s more to come if Republicans win control of Congress. House Republicans have already filed a dozen articles of impeachment against Biden and his team for reasons — such as opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or flubbing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan — that hardly rank as “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The authors are right to warn: “The once extraordinary process is at risk of becoming an everyday vehicle to express the heights of partisan rage instead of a failsafe to protect the American democratic order.”
Janet Hook has covered national politics for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.
The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump
By Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian
William Morrow. 677 pp. $35
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