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Is America Better Off For Having Had Congress Pursue Impeachment?


JOHN ROBERTS: It is therefore ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be - and he is hereby - acquitted of the charges in said articles.


We've just been through one of the more dramatic episodes in American political history. At the end of it all, it would appear that nothing has changed. It was only the third time a president has ever been impeached and put on trial. Yesterday, the Senate declined to remove him from office. The president gives a statement today from the White House, where he still is.

So what was the point? Just over one year ago, Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic said that process would be valuable even if it never removed the president. And now that impeachment has not, Appelbaum is back. Good morning.

YONI APPELBAUM: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Glad to have you back on the program. Here's what you said a year ago. Let's listen.


APPELBAUM: If Congress takes its responsibilities here seriously, triggers an impeachment inquiry into the president and weighs and assesses the evidence, then I think wherever that inquiry comes out, America will be better off for Congress having pursued it.

INSKEEP: Is America better off?

APPELBAUM: Oh, I think so. This was the process that the framers had established for adjudicating whether or not a president was fit to hold the office that he held and whether he should be removed. By following that process instead of simply fulminating against the president, Congress has made its case to the American people, and I think that there's value in that.

INSKEEP: What is the value, given, as we said, that nothing has changed - the president is still in office - if you felt that he should be impeached and removed? It just didn't happen.

APPELBAUM: Well, the outcome here was never seriously in doubt. What the process gave us was at least three things. One is that it gave the public a chance to see what the president's political opponents felt he had done wrong. And the public - you got much more insight into the evidence, into the specifics of what his critics allege was his misconduct in office. The second is that it held accountable those who, in the House and in the Senate, voted to defend the president's conduct, who decided that it was not impeachable and then not removable. They will ultimate...

INSKEEP: Oh, they're now on the record, and they will face the people. The people can judge whether they did their jobs properly.

APPELBAUM: Yeah. That's exactly right. And you want elected officials to take responsibility for decisions like that. That's how our system works. The third is the most important. It took a debate which could've played out violently in the streets, and it channeled those passions into the halls of Congress, which is where they properly belong.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about whether Congress did its job well. The House moved quickly. There was no doubt about that. They did not wait for witnesses that the White House refused to produce or documents, didn't wait, for example, for courts to rule on this. Was that the right way to do it?

APPELBAUM: I think the process in the House was flawed. I think the trial in the Senate was flawed. I think that most of our elected officials are deeply flawed human beings. That is the nature of our political institutions. These processes never play out the way that one might like them to play out. Certainly, I would've liked to see a broader investigation in the House. I suspect we're going to get that now. I would've liked to see witnesses testify in the Senate. I would've liked to see a fuller evidentiary record to be considered here. But I wouldn't underestimate the value of what did play out. We've never had an impeachment trial end like this one before.

INSKEEP: What do you mean?

APPELBAUM: Well, not a single member of the president's opposition party broke with their party to vindicate the president in the Senate. That's never happened. And a member of the president's own party crossed the aisle and voted for his removal. And that's never happened either.

INSKEEP: You made an interesting point one year ago that even if the impeachment process does not remove a president, the president is in some way constrained by these investigations. You, I believe, gave the case of Andrew Johnson in 1868, who was not removed from office but was very limited in his power, very constrained in his power in the months that remained to him in office. Is that likely to be true with this president?

APPELBAUM: I think in the same way that it was true of Johnson, that his - Johnson didn't give up on trying to undermine Reconstruction and racial equality. He continued to fulminate against Congress. He continued to do things that Congress found impeachable. In fact, the leader of the effort against him, Thad Stevens, almost immediately embarked on a new process of impeachment to hold president to account.

And yet he found himself constrained. He was aware that there were, in fact, lines that he could not cross without a price. I suspect, despite this president's own fulminations, he, too, is now aware that there are some things he'd rather not do.

INSKEEP: Why wouldn't the opposite be the case? We just had his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, on the program yesterday who was saying, listen; the president has been completely exonerated here, and he actually ought to go back to trying to get investigations out of Ukraine; in fact, he should go to China; he should go all sorts of places to try to have Joe Biden investigated.

APPELBAUM: Well, I wouldn't want to bet against that happening. Certainly, this is a president who has crossed other norms and boundaries, and he may do that here, too. I think that, zooming out, what you have to consider is what his conduct would be like in the absence of impeachment. That is, he was doing all of these things. We weren't aware of them. The voters were not in a position to judge that conduct when they went to the polls next November. Now we are better aware of what this president is up to. It will ultimately be up to the electorate to decide what to do now because Congress has decided not to sanction him for it.

INSKEEP: You're telling me that there is now a trial record, and another jury will vote.

APPELBAUM: I think that's right. We'll get the final jury vote in November.

INSKEEP: Yoni Appelbaum, thank you very much.

APPELBAUM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is a student of history and an editor with The Atlantic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.