In their new book “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump,” reporters Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade lay out how Democrats put political self-preservation ahead of a genuine effort to hold President Donald Trump accountable for his abuses of power. The authors join Ryan Grim to discuss the missed opportunities and historical what-ifs of Trump’s two impeachments.
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RG: A new book out this week “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump” is chock-full of new details about both of the failed attempts to impeach Trump, including what I consider to be one of the most significant: On the day of January 6, there was a concerted effort by rank-and-file Democrats to impeach Trump that very night, and Democratic leaders from Nancy Pelosi on down rebuffed their effort in a way that may have changed the course of history.
I’m Ryan Grim, and this is Deconstructed. And I’ll be talking about this, and more, with the authors of the new book, Rachael Bade of Politico and Karoun Demirjian of The Washington Post.
Rachael, welcome to Deconstructed.
Rachael Bade: Thank you for having us on.
RG: Sure. And Karoun, thanks for being here.
Karoun Demirjian: Thank you for having us on, Ryan.
So let me start with Nancy Pelosi. After she became speaker in 2006, the first time, basically the first thing that she did was say: Look, I understand that you all want to impeach George W. Bush. It’s not happening. It’s off the table. She was extremely firm about that. So this time, she’s under all sorts of pressure again — and before Rep. Rashida Tlaib was even sworn in, she made this promise:
Rep. Rashida Tlaib: We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker! [Cheers and screams of excitement.]
RG: And so, beginning in January 2019, I’ll start with you Karoun, like what was Pelosi’s attitude toward impeachment?
KD: That it was dangerous.
Look, you have to remember House Speaker Pelosi came of age as a leader in the party during the end of the Clinton years, a.k.a. during the Clinton impeachment. And she learned, like many others that were there at that time, that impeachment can blow back on the impeacher if it’s not handled absolutely perfectly; things, even if you start them the way that the Nixon impeachment started, it doesn’t always end perfectly. And so she was afraid of what the political consequences of impeachment might be, because she had witnessed it happen to the GOP, and she didn’t want to steer her party and her new majority straight into that direction.
So this colors her thinking definitely for the first nine months of 2019, as people like Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Jerry Nadler are working to kind of, especially after the Mueller report comes out, build a very conscious, slow mutiny to force Pelosi to basically say: I have to brace impeachment, because my whole party has gotten there, and I can’t lead nobody.
As much as she says, even during that summer: I don’t care if I’m the last person, I’m not letting this happen — it takes nine months to push her over that line. But then even after they do, she just wants to get it over with as fast as possible to move onto the bread and butter, pocketbook issues that she thinks will win the Democrats the majority after the 2020 election, or keep them the majority and win them the White House.
And so you see Pelosi, who is a very reluctant impeacher, and then a very reluctant supervisor of the impeachment, and she’s cracking the whip and telling them to move, move, move, get it done by Christmas — which forces them to leave lines of inquiry untried and cut a lot of corners in the process of even that which they do investigate.
RG: And so, Rachael, do you think that they focus so narrowly on Ukraine because it was something they could do so quickly? And to me, it seemed like there was so much pressure on Pelosi at the time — something like more than 100 incumbent Democrats, by that point, had primary opponents who had filed challenges. And all of a sudden, because of Joe Crowley, everybody was taking primary challenges extremely seriously. And they’re like: We need to do something, the base is angry, they gave us the majority — we can’t pass legislation because Trump is the president and he’s not gonna sign it, but we need to do something. When are we going to impeach this guy?
And then the Ukraine thing comes up. And so, for Pelosi, is it like: Alright, we can just do this quickly. It’s a phone call. It was wrong; it’s bad; impeach him. The Senate acquits, and we move on.
Why did she want to go so small?
RB: Well, before we get to the Ukraine-only focus, you had mentioned something about 100-and-some House Democrats at that point had actually embraced impeachment. We have this unreported anecdote in our book about a liberal activist with MoveOn.org, who actually visited Pelosi’s office in July, and told her top people that the left is starting to organize, and we’re sick of you doing nothing on impeachment, and what number of House Democrats do you need to see before you make impeachment viable?
And, privately, Pelosi had told her staff she’s quote, as Karoun mentioned, never going to do it. But Pelosi’s staff actually told these organizers: 150 is the number. And it’s interesting, because right around the time the Ukraine saga starts to break — that weekend, in fact — they hit 150. And that liberal activist told the speaker’s office: Look, I’ll hold back progressive groups from coming after Pelosi herself and calling her a coward. But if we get to that point, and if you do nothing, you’re gonna have to deal with me, because I’m not going to hold them back anymore.
So there was this sort of fury that was happening around Ukraine. And with Pelosi, she actually knew about these allegations well before the public did. Rep. Adam Schiff knew about them and had kept her apprised. So it wasn’t like she learned something and was like: Oh, this is so bad, we have to impeach him — which is kind of how she painted it publicly.
But that’s not what happened. It was very much the liberal pressure and this influential op-ed that you might remember —
RB: — where you had some frontliners in certain districts who came out and joined that movement.
As for [the] Ukraine-only focus, I think for Pelosi, again, wanting it to get [it] over with, that was one motivating factor. If you branch out into other investigative lines of inquiry, like Jamie Raskin was asking her to do, you elongate the investigation. And she wanted it done by Christmas.
There was also this notion that she wanted somebody she could trust running the whole thing. [Laughs.] She and Rep. Jerry Nadler, you’ll see in the book, butt heads constantly. They do not get along. And she wanted somebody she could trust, so she put this in Adam Schiff’s turf — technically Ukraine, this is kind of like a national security issue. And so because of the topic at hand, she was able to sideline Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary Chairman, who typically has this sort of turf over impeachment, right, and put it in the hands of Adam Schiff, somebody she trusted, and she knew would be on her team in terms of getting it done quickly, and keeping it narrow.
And lastly, I would just say, I think they were trying to paint this narrative that Ukraine was so bad, that we have to impeach the president. Like, it rises to a certain level that his other conduct does not. The only problem with that is that there was a lot of conduct that you could argue was impeachable, and so by making this look unique, you sort of turn a blind eye to all these other things Trump was doing in the Oval Office, and that’s what Jamie Raskin was privately arguing to Pelosi.
RG: Right. It’s like, OK, then the rest of this is fine. Like the only impeachable thing is this, where we’re gonna let the rest of this slide. And so I think that’s most important for the context of January 6, understanding Pelosi’s historic reticence to impeachment.
And so, Karoun, you guys write about the day of January 6. Somehow Rep. David Cicilline and Rep. Ted Lieu come together. One of their offices was close to the pipe bomb.
KD: Ted Lieu’s. Yeah. He had to evacuate.
RG: So Ted Lieu had to evacuate, and so he joined Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, David Cicilline — both of whom are major characters in the book and are key players in both of these impeachments. And they sit down and they start drafting, by hand, an article of impeachment. I actually reached out to them to see if they had saved that paper. And they said, unfortunately, they didn’t.
KD: Oh! [Laughs.]
RG: That would be a pretty cool historical document. You also mentioned that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s legislative director, who was kind of cordoned off with the party leaders because Omar is one of the only rank-and-file members of Congress who gets her own public security, because of all the death threats against her, so she ended up being with the leadership — her person was drafting an article of impeachment right there.
But so, Karoun, pick this up from here: So Cicilline and Lieu draft an article of impeachment, and then they begin trying to advance it forward. So how do they do that?
KD: So basically — Cicilline and Lieu are friends with Jamie Raskin. They were among the band with the first Liberal Democrats who were lawyers who had expertise in constitutional law, were on the Judiciary Committee, from the beginning of the days after the Mueller report was released that started the internal push to try to get Pelosi to change their mind.
So they are in a similar mindset as they’re seeing January 6: they are getting in touch with Raskin, and they’re saying we need to do this, and he debates with them whether it’s a good idea and then says: OK, count me in. And so you have the original band back together again, basically, within a couple of hours as the Capitol is still under siege.
So he and Lieu drafted the articles of impeachment. They call the Judiciary Committee lawyers who had helped them in the first impeachment; they kind of give their feedback; they fine-tune everything. And then when everybody comes back to the Capitol that night to complete the certification of the Electoral College results, Cicilline takes the draft articles to Steny Hoyer and says: Let’s do this now.
And he’s like: I don’t know if this is gonna work.
And he’s like: Let’s do this now. Don’t give the Republicans a chance to think. Strike while the iron is hot. What more evidence do you need? Let’s do this.
And Hoyer and Pelosi talk about it. And they give him kind of a procedural excuse of why they can’t. And they keep saying: No, we don’t want to do this — for days. It’s not just that it’s the moment of the fog — of the panic — of the war, of the Capitol being attacked, that they say no — they keep saying no.
The attack happened on a Wednesday. Saturday night, Pelosi is convening a conference call and actually asking Adam Schiff to make counterpoints to try to shoot down the people who want to actually impeach — all the meanwhile they are building a huge coalition. There’s almost 200 Democrats at that point who are willing to say: I’m on board with this, let’s do this now.
That’s huge, right? And in that conference call, we document what happened. At a certain point, Adam Schiff, who’s Pelosi’s loyal, right hand man, starts by doing what she’s asked him to do and he eventually says: I’m not doing this anymore. We need to impeach. And starts saying: I have some ideas of my own — and she shoots them down, because Cicilline is already so far ahead of the game.
But this is one of those moments where we also document in the book how, at the lockdown that you just described where the congressional leaders were, and Ilhan Omar, that initially the Republican leaders in the Democratic leaders had been taken to separate rooms. And it’s actually Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crosses the hall to find his Democratic counterparts to say: We’re not going to get help from the White House, we have to work together, we’re the ones who are going to have to save the Capitol by pulling in the people we know from Justice, from Pentagon to actually come and save us. And so the fact that this is all happening in parallel kind of illustrates the point, right? The Republicans were in this moment where they were feeling — not politically calculating — and they were feeling very angry. And they were making very angry speeches on the floor that night. And the Democrats had a moment to capitalize on it — and chose to let it go.
And I mean, look, I’m going to jump ahead a couple of weeks to continue talking around this same sort of point of like, use the moment — don’t let it go. Because our reporting showed that even after they put the football in Jamie Raskin’s hands and he gets a vote during the trial from the Senate, including Republicans, to actually call witnesses and he is going to try to bring in Republican witnesses starting with Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was the person who let the world know about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump’s argument on January 6 itself, and trying to pull in aides to Mike Pence because they were also very, very angry, still, at the president. The Democratic prosecutors, Raskin and his team, which includes Sissilini and Lieu, right, they get shut down by their own party! Chuck Schumer and people who are speaking basically on behalf of the White House, even though they deny it, are basically saying: You can’t do this because you will muddle the waters; if you go after witnesses, if you make this go another second, you will take the oxygen away from Biden’s agenda, and that’s what we’re holding up as the primary thing. So you can’t do it. No, no, no.
And they give up after two hours. Even though, literally, Jaime Herrera Beutler is on the West Coast, pre-9 a.m. on a Saturday, calling lawyers, trying to figure out how she can come forward and testify.
And so it’s these missed moments of thinking about: Oh, is the politics going to be too hard? Either because people don’t like impeachment or because we’re just trying to protect Biden — and yet, it’s a fallacy of thinking that they could have controlled the politics that much. Because we’re still talking about President Trump almost two years later. [Laughs.]
KD: The January 6 [select committee] is retreading over all the same subject-matter ground as the second impeachment, and Trump is still eyeing a potential return to a race for the White House. We haven’t really turned the corner and the public has only gotten more tired in the process, because they didn’t do it the way some of their own people, based on our reporting, wanted them to do it quote-unquote “the right way” the first time.
And Rachael, Robert Draper in his new book on the kind of post-Trump Republican world has a little anecdote where Rep. Liz Cheney — and you guys might have heard this too — on the day of January 6, came up to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and was like: You guys need to do this right now.
Like, she warned them. And he’s like: Hmm.
I don’t know if you know if Pelosi and Hoyer consulted with him or they just made the decision on their own to reject that push. You guys also write about how they did involve the Judiciary Committee, the Chief of Counsel, the Chief of Staff to the Judiciary Committee, who started trying to gather support [on] January 6 for impeachment. Do you know how far that support got? Because I do want to linger for a moment on how real a possibility it was and how much pressure the rank-and-file were trying to put on Hoyer and Pelosi to just get it done?
RB: Well, I think at that point it was a pretty small group. And it was, like Karoun mentioned, that sort of band of rebels from the Judiciary Committee who had pushed her into impeachment one, they had done this before, so they’re able to do it a lot quicker, you know, in the subsequent days after January 6, but that night, I mean, it was only just a handful of them. And they did reach out, as you mentioned, to the Judiciary staff, whom they had worked with during the first impeachment. And his advice is pretty telling. He tells them to go and try to find as many of your colleagues as you can to sign this document because they know leadership is not going to like it. And they know the only way they can push them into is if they galvanize their colleagues. And so they have this longer memory from impeachment one that Pelosi, her team, and most senior Democrats don’t want to deal with impeachment. They’re not going to like this idea. So we’re going to have to find a way to push them into it again. And that’s why they start organizing.
But as for that night as far as our reporting goes, we only really know of those guys, who, by the way, have a nickname for their group. Their staff call them “The Musketeers.” It’s Raskin, Cicilline, Lieu, and Rep. Jonah Neguse as well. So who knows what would have happened. But we can say that Republicans —
RG: You can’t have four Musketeers.
RG: I’m sorry, you can’t. And if you have three, it’s cringe.
KD: Three has been done before, you know.
RG: Yeah. Three has been done.
RG: So Karoun: The key question then I think is McConnell. What would McConnell have done? Because if Democrats impeach the early morning hours of January 7, and McConnell organizes his people against impeachment, then we don’t actually have a moment of contingency; we have a moment where Democrats pushed harder and still lost.
But you guys have some reporting that suggests that McConnell certainly would have been open to it at that point. And throughout the entire thing was looking for a way to be finished with Trump. So what is your read? Let’s say they do impeach the night of January 6. And then the next day is spent with reporters in the hallway, and cable news anchors, pressing Republicans on the question of: OK, the House has just impeached Trump. How are you going to vote? The hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, the trial scheduled for Tuesday, whatever it is.
Where are you leaning? Do you think you wind up locking more Republicans into convictions? Or do you think that they all say, look, not going to judge until the trial, and that buys them enough time for the kind of the structures of our politics to intervene again?
KD: Look, I think that there are publicly known moments where there wouldn’t have been time to happen had they just barreled on straight through. If Sen. Lindsey Graham had not gone home that weekend.
KD: Right? He wouldn’t have bumped into that crowd at the airport that started calling him a traitor, which is what caused him to fold. Right? Before that, he was on the Senate floor saying: Trump and I, we had a good run, but we are through. I am done with this.
That’s a very public statement.
Mitch McConnell, it would take until I think it was the day before the House’s impeachment vote that that Robert Ledig article came out saying: OK, well, you can’t really convict a former president. And that started to create — it was the Sen. Tom Cottons of the GOP that picked up on that, not the Mitch McConnells. Mitch McConnell read that and said: This doesn’t really pass the smell test for me. It feels like an off ramp, it feels like an excuse; I don’t know if I buy this.
And [he] was actually trying to set things up such that he was going to bring GOP lawyers to argue the pros and cons of that position, because he knew his rank-and-file at that point were looking at it. But he didn’t want to give into them. Right? He was setting up this whole slow-roll thing that was going to give him cover to basically say: No, I don’t buy that, this trial is legitimate — and Rand Paul accelerates and cuts off that schedule by forcing that question on the floor: Is it constitutional to put a former president on trial, even if he was impeached while he was still in office?
And so McConnells not ready. He hides from his rank-and-file — we document that in the book, too — and then he ends up voting as following the majority of his party. In the course of reporting this, there’s an anecdote where McConnell, it’s out there that McConnell has said like: I can’t be the leader of five people in the GOP. And, again, because there had been time for people to start being influenced by Trump’s supporters, Lindsey Graham goes from being the guy that says: I’m done with the President, to Mitch McConnell. To: If you vote this is constitutional, you cannot any longer lead the GOP. You cannot vote to convict. You cannot vote that this is wrong, even — which we know McConnell thought was wrong — and still keep your job.
And so this causes this self-preservation calculation based on not what they thought was right and wrong, not what they actually thought about the case, but what they thought about their own political survival, which, as we were talking about before, was not exactly the clearest glasses in terms of being able to prognosticate what the future of their own political fates, and Trump’s, and the country’s would hold — but this is what there wouldn’t have been time to do — if things had just gone boom, boom, boom, you keep everybody in D.C. you have the trial start right away, you don’t get the constitutional excuse, and you don’t let the Republicans that had broken from Trump rethink that decision under pressure from the supporters of Trump that had time to pull them back to the fold?
RB: Yeah, I was just gonna add — [and] this is not from our book, this is actually from Jay Martin and Alex Burns’ book, although we cite them in the book at this part — they mention that McConnell that very night said that: Democrats are going to take care of this S.O.B. for us.
And we also have reporting matching theirs about how he did think there would be 67 senators, including enough Republicans, to impeach and convict Trump, and then potentially bar him from office. McConnell, we show was interested in barring him from office. He talked to his counsel about it. His counsel gave him some sort of warning, trying to tell him: Look, even if we bar Trump from office, he can challenge that in court. So he’s not going to disappear right away. It still can be really messy.
But the fact that he’s actually having these in-depth conversations with his counsel, you know, days later, shows you just where his head was.
And I also think it’s important to keep in mind that Kevin McCarthy — Kevin “Kiss-The-Ring” McCarthy — who does everything Trump says because he wants to be Speaker some day, he, even a few days after the riot was so angry at Trump, he doesn’t whip his members against the impeachment vote. We have an anecdote about how Jaime Herrera Beutler called him and was sort of seeking his counsel on how to vote during the second impeachment. And instead of telling her she shouldn’t, he just pours out how angry he is at Trump to her. He tells her about the call on January 6.
But this is all just to illustrate — not to say Kevin McCarthy would ever vote to impeach, because clearly he didn’t — but it shows you how angry people were. And if people like Kevin McCarthy were in that position several days later, imagine if they had impeached that very night. There’s almost no doubt that they would get more Republicans. The question is: Would it be enough to convict?
RG: Yeah. And your reporting on McConnell is interesting in that regard. Because you go over this meeting where his general counsel goes over the legality. He’s basically saying: Look, don’t think of this rule as like a silver-bullet disqualification of Trump from public life like. Like, OK, yes, it says that, but there are scholars who think that, constitutionally, this only applies to people below the president. And no matter what scholars say, it’s ultimately up to the Supreme Court. And if the Supreme Court decides that he can run, then he can run, which means that he can try to get on the ballot in different states; some states will let him, others won’t, he’ll then sue the states that don’t. And boom! You can impeach him, convict him, disqualify him from office. And he’s right back in public life — because now he’s in court suing to be on the ballot.
What’s your sense of — just knowing the politics of the Republican conference, both Senate and House — and Karoun, we’ll start with you, what the effect is of a conviction? Does that fundamentally transform politics? Or does that turn him into a martyr that only strengthens him?
KD: This is the question that McConnell was grappling with, right?
The thing is, though, remember: That’s not the only side of the calculation they were doing. They also thought — vainly, I would posit — that if they just let Trump off the hook and go away, he would just gracefully recede into the fine shadows of the past and not give them any problems anymore. That is naïveté of the highest order.
So remember, it wasn’t just the consideration that you’re laying out there of: Oh, what if we turn him into a martyr? It was literally coupled with: But if we don’t, everything’s going to be great — which is just not the way that Trump operates, and not based on their experience, and is completely self-justifying and a self-salve, basically, to make them think that —
RG: Yeah. You have a phone call between Liz Cheney and McConnell, right? Where he’s like: Liz, just ignore him.
KD: [Laughs.] You don’t go to Liz Cheney to ask what to do if you don’t want somebody to tell you that you’ve got to throw the book at somebody, Liz Cheney’s position on this is pretty clear, right?
He also goes to Lindsey Graham to ask what he thinks that he should do. And Lindsey Graham’s position on things is fairly clear, as well. So McConnell really was constantly checking with the angel on his one shoulder and the devil on his other one trying to decide where he stood in the middle.
I mean, look, the thing is, though, the politics of the party have not changed, right? Yes, Trump still has a significantly huge influence over the party members, right? And yeah, is there a chance based on some conservative scholars that if they had convicted, it wouldn’t have actually done the complete, final nail on the coffin of barring him from office, that additional vote after conviction? Yeah, you can have a debate on it. But like, it doesn’t necessarily mean that by not doing anything, they were in a better position if their end game — end objective — was to have Trump not be a problem for them anymore.
Had they gone down this road, had conviction happened, there’s like a really better than 50 percent chance that the court would say: Actually, there is no direction on the constitution to treat presidents differently than other impeached parties, and so we’re not going to do it this way. Would that have ended Trump’s actual hold on the party? Not necessarily. But if Trump’s not the guy anymore, right, that still is different.
There are plenty of candidates out there in the GOP who are Trumpy, but not Trump, and sometimes the party thinks they’d actually be the best next choice because there’s something about Trump the person that is a little extra than Trump the phenomenon, right? And so yeah, would you still have Trump out there throwing epithets at any moderate Republican that he could find? Sure. Would he still potentially be the kingmaker in some ways? Maybe, right? But he wouldn’t necessarily be the king.
And I think this has been the problem, right? Trump himself, because of all of his business entanglements he didn’t divest from, because of his ways of dealing with foreign leaders, because of his ways of dealing with his followers in inciting — he was accused of inciting a riot at the Capitol, and there’s a lot of proof that he did that, even though his supporters are still saying that’s not true. That’s maybe different than the people that would step into his spot — maybe not, but it maybe is, right? Because there’s something about the person that’s a little bit more than the movement that grew up behind them.
RG: Right. And, Rachael, here’s one other counterfactual. Tell me what you think of this.
So let’s say they do hold the vote that night. And let’s say that, as a result, rather than the handful of Republicans voting for impeachment, you get scores: 60-70 Republicans voting for impeachment in the House, maybe even more than that. I would assume that the overlap between Republicans and competitive races this cycle, and Republicans who would have been inclined to vote for impeachment that night would be pretty high.
So in other words, you probably then have a ton of these Republicans lose primaries. So you don’t just have Liz Cheney and Herrera Beutler thrown out of the party, you have maybe dozens and dozens of Republicans thrown out, and then maybe they’re much less competitive in these swing districts? Or: How do you think it unfolds if you have, say, 100 Republicans vote for impeachment?
RB: Maybe. See, this is kind of like [a] what’s first, the chicken or the egg sort of thing? My theory on this is that — and this is all theoreticals, right, we have no idea — but if you would have had 100 Republicans vote for Trump’s impeachment, and multiple dozens of Republican senators actually go along and agree, I mean, you could see a lot of Republican voters take a second look at what happened that day, instead of just dismissing it.
RB: I mean, one of the things Liz Cheney has said over and over again is that the reason that the base is still with Trump or that a lot of Republicans sort of still tolerate him — and even like him or love him — is because they don’t know how bad things are, because Republican leaders have really swept things under the rug. Because not enough Republicans have supported efforts to check Trump, it leads Republican voters to think that nothing wrong was done here, that it was just an average protest.
And so I think that that might have had a bigger effect in terms of turning Republican voters against Trump, if that makes sense.
RG: But I wonder who carries that message? Like do get OAN and Fox News on board with that? I mean, you certainly could get Fox News on board with that. But do you get the conservative media? Karoun, what do you think?
KD: I was nodding, because I mean, Fox News had Kevin McCarthy delivering that message on January 6.
KD: That’s not at all a leap of faith or imagination. They didn’t like it.
Look, it just gives the Republicans who were horrified at what happened on January 6, it gives them leaders to rally behind, as Rachael was pointing out. It’s really hard to be the first man on the island if you are a rank-and-file person. Jaime Herrera Beutler was never going to be the leader of the parade of her party away from Trump; she just wasn’t, you know? But Kevin McCarthy, plus Mitch McConnell, plus Vice President Mike Pence, plus all these people, maybe they could have been!
And they didn’t take the shot. It’s like everybody was afraid to try to flex the muscle that they might have, because what if it was too weak? That’s true of the Republicans who were horrified at Trump and it is true of the Democrats, who were disgusted and wanted to actually throw the book at him and nail him.
And that’s the other thing here too, remember? Because yes, the political question is paramount for the time that we’re in: Would it have actually changed what hold Trump has over the system? But there’s also the parallel question of: Would it have left the system more durable, right? Trump, I think it’s pretty clear, he’s been a stress test for the institutional order in very many ways. And the institutional order has failed very, very often to pass that stress test. This was another example where Democrats and Republicans, because they were putting those political oh-but-what-ifs first, instead of just being like: Well, let’s do everything we can. And if we’re going to impeach or we’re going to be disgusted by January 6, let’s just run at the wall with everything we got, so at least we can say we tried, at least we can say that we ran the engine full-tilt, and the engine is still firing off, and it did its job, even if like we couldn’t quite make this — we couldn’t quite drive this person off the road.
KD: I’m stretching a metaphor, but you know what I mean?
Really, I mean, look: Impeachment has never ever resulted in forcing somebody from office, except for in the Watergate example, which is kind of weird, because like Nixon left, before he could actually even be impeached, right? But at least through the Nixon and the Clinton impeachments, the tool was still bipartisan, it still meant the courts would bend to the will of Congress — or not bend, but the courts would validate the power of a congressional subpoena, the power of congressional oversight, the power of Congress to do something at all, in a moment like this. And people in both parties abdicated that potential authority they had for fear that it wouldn’t actually be as strong. They didn’t use it, because they were afraid that it wouldn’t be there.
But — I’m sorry, this is gonna be like a parallel thing that’s maybe not going to make any sense — but like, that adage that you don’t get 100 percent of the things that you don’t try for, right? I mean, in this sort of sense, they didn’t use what they had, so of course they didn’t end up fixing the problem.
RG: And Mitch McConnell never asked me, but I could have told him —
RG: — that if you’re gonna leave your faith in Democratic leaders to fight your fights, you’re probably going to wind up disappointed, which is odd, because Mitch McConnell has operated alongside and against Democratic leaders for so long and has witnessed their capacity to really bring the fight. I don’t know what made him think that they were going to handle this.
RB: Well, I mean, it is curious, too, because I mean, we have a scene in the book where when he reads the call transcript [of] Trump’s call with Ukraine in the first impeachment, he knew Pelosi was really trying to hold back on impeachment, and he knew how she felt about it. And his counsel says: I don’t think she can hold this back anymore, because her members are gonna totally push her into this. And McConnell said: Basically, that’s exactly right. But at that moment, he did. I guess he was looking for anybody to do the work for him, and he didn’t step out and lead.
KD: And has become a theme, too, just in the first few days of reception as people crack open the book, but haven’t fully read it yet. Everybody wants to look at the Trump impeachments as very black and white; that the side that they support, because their intentions are something they believe in, did everything right, and it was the other side’s fault for either not having the guts to overthrow their own president, or not doing the impeachment the right way — it’s very fingerpointy.
And yes, there is definitely truth to the traditional narrative that Republicans rallied around Trump and Democrats tried but didn’t succeed in besting that. But the reticence to examine your heroes, right, to look at, OK, just because your intent is good, does that mean your execution is perfect? I don’t think in any other walk of life would we say that: Yes — A equals B. But that’s kind of what we’re unpacking here. There were a lot of people, sources, that came forward to share with us how what was going on behind the scenes did not match what we were seeing in public. And all of that has ramifications for what happens the next time. Yes, what happens in the future with Trump, but also what happens the next time some Congress wants to impeach a president for a good reason or for a bad reason.
RG: Well, Karoun and Rachael, congratulations on the book. It’s really good. It gets pretty deep into the weeds, but it’s still really fast paced and a fun read. And thank you so much for joining me here.
RB: Thanks for having us on, Ryan.
KD: Thank you so much. Yeah.
RG: That was Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian.
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