STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Democrats took charge of the House of Representatives, their leaders were clear. They had no intention of starting off with impeachment proceedings. An investigation of President Trump's ties to Russia is not finished. Many Democrats may view the president as unfit for office, but if the House were to impeach him, he would likely survive a trial in the Republican Senate anyway. That has been the thinking of Democratic leaders.
Yoni Appelbaum views it differently. He is a student of history and a writer for The Atlantic, and he argues an impeachment process could be helpful for the country, for the president's critics, and even, in a way, more fair to the president.
What is it you think people are getting wrong about the idea of beginning impeachment proceedings today?
YONI APPELBAUM: Well, I think most people think of impeachment as an outcome rather than as a process. And so when people debate this question, they're often really debating whether or not they think that Donald Trump ought to be able to continue as president of the United States. I'd rather that Americans approach this as a process, as an orderly, rule-bound way to have a debate that is already raging in this country.
INSKEEP: Here's one way to look at impeachment through history. No president has ever been impeached by the House of Representatives and then convicted by the Senate and removed from office. The process has never gone all the way through. Therefore, it's pointless. That's one point of view. What's yours?
APPELBAUM: Well, I'd flip that around, and I'd say that the process has actually worked extraordinarily well on several occasions. And so with the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, which I think is a prime example of this, you've got a president who is remarkably unpopular and yet has a core of extraordinarily loyal supporters.
INSKEEP: The guy who took over after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the end of the Civil War. OK.
APPELBAUM: Right. So his holding that office is of contested legitimacy. He comes from a different political party than Abraham Lincoln does. He clashes with congressional Republicans. And the fight, really, is over what Johnson calls his urge to preserve a white man's government. He does not wish to see America be a place with any degree of racial equality.
Congress passes laws; the president vetoes them. For the first time in American history, we get a veto override of a major piece of legislation, and Congress asks the president to do something that no president has ever done, which is to enforce a law that he has previously vetoed. And Johnson, effectively, won't do it. And this sets up an enormous power struggle.
Congress moves forward with impeachment, and it instantly does, I think, three critical things. One is it diffuses the potential for violence. The second thing it does is it separates the reasonable charges against Johnson from the unreasonable ones. And then the third thing that it does is it took a debate that was unformed and raging in public, and it moves it into Congress.
And as it does that, it focuses the president's attention on his own political future. Johnson is no longer talking to raucous crowds and calling for the hanging of his political rivals, as he had previously done. Instead, he buttons up a little bit, and he ultimately decides to give Congress its way on Reconstruction. It does not result in Johnson's removal, but it does result in his essential political death.
INSKEEP: One pattern of Congress in recent decades has been to outsource its powers or its responsibilities to other people, to set up a commission to try to solve a problem, to let the president handle it while they look the other way. Would you argue that that is what has happened here - that there are members of Congress who don't want to look too closely at the president - it's politically embarrassing, and they are relieved that Robert Mueller is there to perform his own investigation about which they can avoid commenting for as long as possible?
APPELBAUM: I think there are many members of Congress, I should say, of both parties who believe that this president is fundamentally unfit for office and are hoping for a sort of deus ex Mueller to save them from the constitutional response...
INSKEEP: Deus ex Mueller - is that Latin? I think it is. Go on. I'm sorry.
APPELBAUM: And that's what they're hoping for. They're hoping that somebody else will come and bail them out here - that if they wait patiently on the sidelines, they won't have to do this hard thing, which is have a process, and potentially a divisive one, of looking through the evidence and hearing from witnesses.
They would rather that Mueller deliver them a gift-wrapped box, and inside it is all the damning evidence that will force Donald Trump to resign without the need to trigger this process.
INSKEEP: Wouldn't impeachment also be hard for the country and the people at large? It's a process that would be enormously divisive, enormously distracting at a moment when we have a lot of things we really should be focusing on.
APPELBAUM: There's no question that a process of impeachment would be divisive. On the other hand, I think it's very hard to look out at the current political landscape and conclude anything other than that these questions are tearing the country apart.
I don't think that this is a process that needs to lead to Donald Trump's removal in order to be healthy for America. What we need at this moment as Americans is a process that can take the passions of the public debate and channel them into an orderly way that will lead to a path toward resolution.
If we get that, 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: Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic. Thanks for coming by.
APPELBAUM: Thank you.
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