What will history say about the Trump impeachment? | CBC News

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What will history say about the Trump impeachment? | CBC News

U.S. President Donald Trump cares about his place in history and what future generations will say about his impeachment.

He said that posterity is the reason he wrote an irate letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — he wants Americans to know his side of the story 100 years from now.

In an effort to get an early jump on the verdict of the ages, CBC reached out to American presidential historians and asked them: What will future historians say about Trump’s impeachment?

Trump is just the third American president impeached by the House of Representatives, after Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. (Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before he could be impeached and expelled.) 

Several historians zeroed in on the stark partisanship of the current impeachment fight. While the post-Civil War vote to impeach Andrew Johnson broke down along partisan lines and the Clinton impeachment vote was largely partisan, several historians pointed to the difference between Republicans and Democrats as a defining feature of the current moment.

Every Republican in the House of Representatives is expected to side with Trump in Wednesday’s impeachment vote, and the party has made clear it will use its Senate majority to block his ouster from office. 

“The disheartening and ugly partisanship at play in this impeachment is what stands out and what will no doubt remain of concern, as that erodes the fabric of democracy,” said Stacy Cordery, a professor at Iowa State University and a participant in C-SPAN’s ranking of presidents in the Presidential Historians Survey.

“The abandonment by members of Congress of even a vestige of Jeffersonian virtue — of putting country before self — suggests only more difficult times ahead for the country.”

‘This is an impeachable offence’

When asked whether she blames one specific party for Congress’s behaviour, Cordery said she’s reluctant to mention one in particular, because there’s too much partisanship all around. 

She did say, however, that future generations might wonder why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kept the topics of the impeachment investigation so narrow, because historians’ view of the Trump record will benefit from access to additional archival material not available today.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted impeachment hearings until Trump’s controversial overture to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Kathryn Brownell, a historian at Purdue University in Indiana, said the impeachment appears well deserved, based on currently available facts.

“The evidence presented so far shows that this is an impeachable offence, meaning that the House has enough evidence to pass articles of impeachment and move the process forward,” Brownell said. 

She said next it’s up to the Senate to conduct a thorough investigation, involving key witnesses. Senate Republicans, however, have already made clear they have no desire to allow key witnesses to testify.

“Simply dismissing the trial as a sham or an event with a predetermined outcome is dangerous, as it shows a disrespect for the constitutional process,” said Brownell.

She said what’s really unique about the Trump impeachment is how conservatives and non-conservatives are living in different information universes, a crucial difference from the Watergate hearings.

In the early 1970s, “Republicans and Democrats were all looking at and discussing the same facts. Television did not have the same type of partisan commentary we see today, and that was celebrated as an important part of the process,” she said.

In December 1998, President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives. (Doug Mills/The Associated Press)

But she said an outgrowth of Watergate was a pair of developments in mass communication: mainstream media became focused on investigations and conservatives built an ecosystem of talk radio and, later, cable TV. She said that twin dynamic created a non-stop emphasis on scandal, which reached a peak with the Clinton impeachment, which was more partisan than Nixon’s.

“The Clinton impeachment set new norms that shape today’s environment,” Brownell said. 

‘An army bound to obey orders’

Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of numerous books on America’s founding fathers, called it “astounding” that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has already essentially promised to acquit Trump in the Senate trial early next year, and to work in co-ordination with the White House legal team.

That’s despite senators being expected to take an oath to act as impartial jurors for the trial. 

Ellis said this obvious bias will cast a shadow over any claim Trump later makes — “which he surely will make” — that he was exonerated. 

Ellis said that behaviour from Republicans is the most distinguishing feature of this moment in history, with evidence that the party has little interest in carrying out its constitutional functions. 

“They’re complete partisans… There is no whiff, or even pretense, of detachment,” Ellis said. “People in the Republican Party believe they are soldiers in an army bound to obey orders, rather than an equal branch of government duty-bound to defend the Constitution.”

Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before he could be impeached. (MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality)

This leads Ellis to the dark conclusion that the current political system, with its paralyzing divide, is ill equipped to deal with the era’s economic and environmental challenges. 

“It says we are in troubled times, and that things will get worse before they get better,” he said. Ellis draws some comfort from the idea that, in the bleakest periods of American history, great presidents have later emerged to turn things around, like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. 

Ellis’s area of specialization is America’s founding fathers. When asked how they would view the Trump case, he said the founders would be surprised it took the country this long — 230 years — to elect the kind of “full-blooded demagogue” they feared when they designed the Constitution.

Ellis called Trump a “symptom” of long-standing problems in the American political system, “not a cause.”

Long-term consequences

Presidential historian Kendrick Clements, a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, said he’s been struck by Trump’s blanket refusal to co-operate with the investigation or to provide requested information to investigators. 

Clements said this could have long-term consequences. “If that refusal stands, it would mean that a president is immune from prosecution for illegal acts and that Congress’s investigative powers are severely curtailed,” he said.

He said the deepening polarization of U.S. politics has not yet ended all co-operation between the parties on issues, but he said there is an increasing risk of the legislative branch of the U.S. government becoming completely paralyzed — which would leave the president a freer hand to do whatever he pleases.

U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, centre, has signalled that the Senate is working in conjunction with the White House legal team and will not vote to remove the president. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

He said it’s hard to predict future historians’ views, because they will depend on still-unknown developments in American democracy. 

For example, he said a Senate acquittal might be seen someday as “the moment when the U.S. turned away from democracy toward authoritarianism.” On the other hand, he said, should the Senate agree to oust Trump, it’s also possible that future historians might declare this is when the balance of power between the branches of government tipped toward congressional dominance. While he said he hopes the U.S. avoids either extreme, he’s a little worried about the state of affairs.

“The edge of the precipice is frighteningly close, and the short-term outlook for a happy new year doesn’t seem very bright.”

The historical view

Terry Madonna, a presidential historian, pollster and director of the Center of Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, also identified bitter partisanship as a defining feature of this moment.

He said there would likely be zero Republican votes for impeachment on the House floor — as opposed to 1998, when five Democrats voted to impeach Clinton, and 1974, when top Republicans told Nixon to resign or be removed from office. Madonna also noted that 31 Democrats supported the inquiry into Clinton’s impeachment — versus the zero Republicans who voted to begin the current process.

But what will history say about the substance of the charges against Trump? 

Trump has railed against the Democratic move to impeach him and sent a blistering six-page letter to Speaker Pelosi on Dec. 17. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

“The initial consensus [will] likely support what the [Democrats] are doing. Notice the word ‘likely,'” Madonna said. 

He identified another complication hindering any prediction about history — that even the study of the past is subject to trends. That means scholars in different eras will view Trump in different ways, through the prism of their own times.

“Historians are likely to reach a consensus, only to have revisionist historians move off the consensus and make different arguments,” Madonna said. “[There’s] no way to know for sure this early on in the process.”

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