I am one of more than 1,500 historians who signed a letter urging the U.S. House of Representatives to impeach President Donald J. Trump, and I want to explain my reasoning, grounded in decades of writing and teaching about our history as a constitutional republic — a government of laws.
Beyond that, however, I want to speak directly to Republicans like our representative in Congress, Lloyd Smucker. I think they know who Donald Trump is (a vulgar, amoral con man) and what he has done (pervert the presidency for his own purposes). The question in my mind remains: Why do they go along with it? Do they think history will absolve them for cooperating with a criminal in our nation’s highest office?
The House has impeached the president on two specific grounds: coercing the government of Ukraine for his private purposes (to dig up dirt on the Biden family), and illegally obstructing Congress’ responsibility and authority to investigate wrongdoing.
Like many historians, I think there is far more that warrants impeachment. Since he took office Trump has waged war on constitutional democracy. He has sought to undermine key institutions of government — the Department of Justice, the courts, Congress itself. He apparently believes he has a mystical connection with “the American people” (meaning the 46% who voted for him) that trumps the rule of law.
As our letter says, if “President Trump’s misconduct does not rise to the level of impeachment, then virtually nothing does.” Key figures all around him have taken plea bargains, gone to jail, been forced from office, or are under indictment — it’s a long list, and if you have a memory like mine, it reprises the slow drip of Watergate, as the walls closed in around another criminal president.
The difference is that Richard Nixon really had won a sweeping majority in 1972 — 61% of the vote, and 49 of 50 states. As the evidence of Watergate seeped out, however, no one alleged that the scale of his victory somehow made him off-limits. The law proceeded and, in the end, a significant number of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment, and Senate Republican leaders (including Barry Goldwater, a man of principle) went to the White House to urge him to resign.
Today’s Republicans are a different breed, either extremist ideologues or craven followers. Since nothing in Smucker’s prior career suggests the former, I can only conclude he is the latter — afraid of Trump, afraid of his party’s “base,” so-called. Instead of acknowledging the gravity of the evidence, Smucker, like many others, changes the subject — asserting that pursuing the president’s criminal activity is nothing more than a do-over for 2016. This is a classic ad hominem attack, something Trump is very good at: You don’t respond to what is charged; you just malign your opponent.
Smucker perfectly represents the bad faith of reasonable Republicans. Here he was in his Nov. 26 constituent newsletter, dissembling and dodging: “I have said all along, after reading the transcript of President Trump’s call with President Zelensky of Ukraine, that nothing in the call proved to be a ‘quid pro quo’ and rose to the level of ‘High Crimes and misdemeanors’ constitutionally stated to impeach a duly elected sitting president.”
Our congressman here effectively admits the president did something wrong — it just wasn’t wrong enough, it didn’t “rise to the level.” It wasn’t that bad, and besides, everybody has done it, too.
Wrong. Let the historian clarify: There is no record of presidents exercising their highest public authority, negotiating with foreign countries, to benefit their private interests. Harry Truman didn’t tell the French that their Marshall Plan aid depended on a fat cash contribution to his 1948 reelection drive; Richard Nixon didn’t make the SALT I Treaty with the Soviets contingent on Leonid Brezhnev using the KGB to spy on the Democrats; George W. Bush didn’t condition his greatest foreign policy achievement, massive funding to combat AIDS in Africa, on those countries' leaders privately siphoning him shares in their diamond mines.
What Trump attempted this past summer was corruption of the worst possible sort: He corrupted all of us, the citizens he represents, by this venal manipulation. No government anywhere in the world will trust our word, our diplomatic guarantees, as long as he remains.
The second count in the impeachment is just as bad, and ignored by Smucker for good reason. The president has asserted his absolute personal privilege to deny Congress’ authority to investigate him. He barred 11 White House officials from testifying, and blocked the release of official records.
This is the denial of republicanism itself — that the nation is a “public thing” held by all of us, its elected officials our servants. For Trump, it’s the other way around. He has no concept of republican government — he thinks like a monarch — which is why no true conservative who believes in republicanism could support him. He has turned the White House into a fetid swamp of corruption, and around him stand the ruins of a once-great party, holding their noses and pretending not to notice the stink.
Van Gosse is a professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College.