To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment
By Laurence A. Tribe and Joshua Matz
Reviewed by Tony Pelczynski, Reference Assistant
In a recent New York Times book review of an entirely different book, law professor Josh Chafetz identified a nascent literary strain of Constitution-focused popular books that has proliferated since the 2016 presidential election: the “this-book-is-about-timeless-constitutional-truths-not-about-Trump-wink-wink subgenre.” To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, by Laurence A. Tribe and Joshua Matz, is no such book. Its first line reads: “Impeachment haunts Trumpland,” and from there, pedal is firmly put to metal. There is no winking in To End a Presidency—it is crystal clear whose presidency the book’s title is contemplating.
While the topic of presidential impeachment is almost always politically polarizing, if not politically motivated (at least in contemporary times), Tribe and Matz deftly and skillfully run through impeachment’s Constitutional framework and history with a minimum of partisan fireworks. While impeachment is enshrined in the Constitution, a removal option reserved for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” committed by high-ranking officials, the Framers left the process largely undefined. As the authors point out, this may be chalked up to the usual series of legislative compromises and accommodations that underlie any such attempt to hammer out a foundational legal document. But in large part, this was also by design, as the Framers understood that as the United States grew and evolved, actions that might constitute impeachable offenses in 1789 might not look the same in, say, 2018 (and vice versa).
Tribe and Matz hold lucid opinions regarding the topic of Donald Trump’s impeachability, and they are not hesitant to express them. However, while the book’s pace is quick and the tone urgent, the authors repeatedly remind the reader that even though the threat of impeachment has, in recent decades, been treated as a political tool, no president has ever been directly removed by the impeachment process, and so we simply do not know what the implications of such a removal might be (of course, Richard Nixon likely came the closest to removal, but resigned before the impeachment process could actually run its course). Whatever one thinks of Trump, the authors seem to be saying, and because impeachment is such a grave option, we ought to think long and hard before invoking the process in a fit of partisan pique. As they note, there are other ways of obstructing the President’s agenda (including Congressional action/inaction), short of the “nuclear” option of impeachment.
Of course, in the modern era, the gravity of the impeachment process has never slowed down Congressional calls for its implementation. Prior to Nixon, presidential impeachment attempts were relatively rare. Post-Nixon, the specter of impeachment has been invoked against every subsequent president, with varying degrees of seriousness and plausibility. From calls to remove Gerald Ford for his pardon of Nixon, to attempts to strip Barack Obama of his presidency for the supposed “birth certificate issue” (Blake Farenholtz) and what the authors term claims of “unspecified ‘thuggery’” (hello, Michele Bachmann!), Tribe and Matz spotlight the seemingly never-ending parade of modern-day partisan calls for impeachment. While such demands have most often functioned as a form of political grandstanding, the impeachment process became truly weaponized during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, a weaponization that has taken root in American politics, and from which, the authors fear, the American political process may never fully recover.
With impeachment talk currently permeating any discussion of Trump’s presidency, apparently within even Trump’s own administration (see the New York Times’ recent “I Am Part of the Resistance” anonymous op-ed; or reports of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s attempted recruitment of Trump cabinet members willing to invoke the 25th Amendment), those advocating for, or considering, Trump’s impeachment would be wise to peruse To End a Presidency, before the United States heads down a road from which it may never be able to turn back. If, at some point in the near future, impeachment proceedings become inevitable, due to either partisan tribalism or a genuine presidential threat to the nation and its rule of law, one hopes that the authors’ calls for caution and contemplation will have been heeded. In a time of inflamed political passions, Tribe and Matz have written a sober and well-researched discussion of the history surrounding, and the pitfalls of blithely invoking, a wrenching political process with which the nation has had little actual experience.
To End a Presidency was generously donated to the Library by Suzanne P. Marria.