Michael Kinsley: Against Impeachment

Failing to convict Trump for a second time gains the Democrats nothing

By Michael Kinsley

Democrats should forget about impeaching and convicting Donald Trump. It seems vindictive. In fact, it is vindictive. It’s as much about settling scores of the past four years as it is about what Trump said on his way out the door. The man’s reputation is in ruins. He will forever be remembered as a psychotic loser. I know nothing about President Andrew Johnson, except that he is regarded as one of the worst ever, along with Richard Nixon. Trump now joins this exclusive club: presidents that everybody regards as awful, even if they don’t know why. 

But what is the point of rubbing the bully’s nose in the dirt? Oh, at the trial there will be much clucking about how impeachment demonstrates the strength of democracy. And much of this, from both sides of the aisle, will be sincere and even true. But nobody’s mind is going to change because of it. 

President Biden has a long list of things he wants to accomplish. He has also spoken eloquently about the need for a return to civility in public life. These are Biden’s two great themes: a renewed activist government and a “kinder, gentler” society (as George Bush the Elder put it, though it was not one of his priorities). Impeachment undermines this. And it won’t shorten Trump’s term by so much as a day, or improve the chances for Biden’s agenda by 0000.01%.

No matter how well-behaved the Democrats in this trial will try to be, it will inevitably be perceived as a partisan exercise. If they must do something to register their disgust, Democrats in Congress should settle for a censure. It will have the same practical effect as impeachment—i.e., none. It will satisfy the Trump haters without terminally offending those who are put off by all the grandstanding. Few voters will know or care about the difference between impeachment and censure.  

And why do Democrats and the media keep referring to Trump as the first president in history to be impeached twice? They tried once and lost, and now they’re trying again and are almost certain to lose again. At what point does impeachment lose its sting and become just another piece of the political tool kit?

The Constitution says that if Trump is impeached and then convicted, he can be banned from running for president again. Trump run again? Democrats should only be so lucky. The media culture does not allow second chances, whatever the Constitution may say. “Trump? we already did that one.” He’s over. He lost the election by 10 million votes. Is there anyone who has become more sympathetic to Trump since Election Day? 

There is also a logical problem with impeachment that has no answer I can see. The single article of the impeachment document accuses Trump of fomenting rebellion against the government. His speech on Jan. 6 encouraged a mob to storm the Capitol. Or that is the argument we will hear repeatedly during an impeachment trial, and it is not an unreasonable interpretation of Trump’s words that day.

But meanwhile, federal prosecutors are fanning across the Internet, tracking down and indicting leaders of the mob, which appears to have been far more organized and pre-planned than we thought initially. Every bit of evidence that the rampage was actually a plot undermines the case that Trump’s somewhat ambiguous words shortly before the event are responsible for causing it. You can argue that the rampage was planned or you can argue that Trump caused it. You can’t argue both.

In reality, the animus that energizes the call for impeachment and conviction has its roots long before the events of Jan. 6. Democrats’ grievances against Trump are mostly justified. He’s a horrible man, and deserves his ignominy. But Democrats should calculate what’s best for them, and not what’s worst for Donald Trump.

Michael Kinsley, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, was the founder of Slate, editor of The New Republic and Harper's, managing editor of The Washington Monthly, and the American editor of The Economist.