Only the ballot box can deliver a final verdict on President Trump

Whether or not you believe President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE should be impeached, we are now in historic territory. When House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Top Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Progressives won't oppose bill over limits on stimulus checks MORE announced a formal impeachment inquiry this week, it became increasingly clear the impeachment of Donald Trump is no longer a matter of if but when.

For the founders, there were two essential purposes of impeachment. First, to ensure that Congress had a tool to check the powers of the executive and judiciary, and second, if necessary, to remove officials engaged in wrongdoing from office through trial. Not every participant in the Constitutional Convention wanted to include impeachment, but as James Madison had noted, it was George Mason who challenged his colleagues, asking, “Shall any man be above justice?” It would also be Mason who would suggest that the Constitution include the words “high crimes and misdemeanors,” therefore providing plenty of fodder for both legal counsel and political punditry to determine what that means.

Only three presidents before Trump have faced impeachment. They were Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonSenators introduce bill creating technology partnerships to compete with China Edie Falco to play Hillary Clinton in Clinton impeachment series Website shows 3D models of every Oval Office design since 1909 MORE. Johnson and Clinton were impeached, but were not removed from office by the Senate, while Nixon resigned before the trial could begin in the Senate. In practicality, impeachment has served more as a tool to investigate and check the president, rather than remove him from office. No historical comparison is perfect, but they can inform what we may see over the coming weeks.


While Johnson would escape removal from office by a single vote in the Senate, his impeachment reflected the tumult of reconstruction after the Civil War, the future of civil rights for emancipated slaves, and the authority of the presidency versus Congress following the expansion of executive power. While the impeachment articles dealt specifically with the firing of War Secretary Edwin Stanton, this disagreement came from questions over how harsh the terms would be for the defeated states of the Confederacy. Johnson would be a lame duck for the remaining months of his presidency, but the precedent of his impeachment and narrow acquittal was important. It meant disagreement with Congress over policy was not impeachable, yet “high crimes and misdemeanors” were.

The lead up to what would have been the Nixon impeachment tell us how the investigation and hearing process turned public opinion. Nixon had handily won reelection in 1972, but the kernel of his undoing laid in just how far he was willing to go to be reelected. Even as scandals swirled around Nixon, the public was not sold on impeachment. When the Senate Watergate hearings began in 1973, only 19 percent of Americans believed that Nixon should be removed from office. Over the following year, that number would not go above 50 percent, until the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon must hand over the White House recordings to Congress. Televised hearings would bring presidential criminality into living rooms across the country, and when it became clear that Republicans in Congress were now favoring impeachment, Nixon chose to resign.

In the case of the Clinton impeachment, the opposite of Nixon took place. Buoyed by a strong economy and public popularity, the Republican effort to impeach Clinton related to perjury during the Monica Lewinsky scandal backfired. The public generally decried what was seen as Republican overreach into personal affairs, and similar scandals on the Republican side added an air of hypocrisy. Unlike the Nixon impeachment, where the hearings would be televised on major networks, Americans could now choose from partisan cable networks or new online news outlets to follow the impeachment. After all, remember that it was Drudge Report that would beat the traditional news outlets in breaking the Lewinsky story.

During the Clinton impeachment, the “choose your narrative” version of our politics became ascendant. As we now move towards the Trump impeachment, many Americans will follow the story on outlets that they choose based on their partisan leanings. While the Democrats appear to be on an accelerated schedule, hoping to have articles of impeachment ready by year end, some have questioned whether they are failing to heed the lesson of the Nixon impeachment, where it took the public airing of presidential malfeasance to shift public opinion. But on the other hand, perhaps, in a nonstop 24 hour news cycle with polarized media coverage, attitudes on either side would only harden during prolonged hearings.

Ultimately, while impeachment will forever be written in the history books regarding the Trump presidency, it is unlikely that the Senate controlled by Republicans will vote to remove him from office, barring a tectonic shift in Republican grassroots sentiment towards Trump. Given the current trends at play, our politics will then become more divisive and more polarized. So even as the impeachment process moves forward, it is likely that only the ballot box will deliver the ultimate historical verdict.

Dan Mahaffee is the senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.