By Dora Mekouar
Donald Trump’s status as the only U.S. president to be impeached twice may be his most lasting legacy — one that is far different than how he might have been remembered prior to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol January 6 by his supporters.
Presidential historian Barbara Perry says that despite Trump’s reputation for norm-breaking, racism and online bullying, the former president fulfilled many of the main promises he made on the campaign trail in 2016.
“Maybe more than most presidents, he made good on his promises,” says Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“He lowered taxes on the wealthy. He limited and reduced federal regulations. He put conservatives — to the tune of over 200 federal judges — on the lower federal courts and three conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court. He engaged in strong-arm tactics against China. He built part of his wall on the southern border and attempted to reduce, and succeeded in reducing, illegal immigration.”
Forecasting how historians will perceive and treat the 45th president decades from now is a risky endeavor. Perspectives change over time. Yet Perry and other students of politics agree that Trump’s trial for inciting insurrection, which begins this week, will likely obscure or taint the most notable accomplishments achieved during his presidency.
One of his primary distinctions in the history books could be as the only president ever to be formally accused of, and tried for, fomenting rebellion against the government he led.
The U.S. House of Representatives impeached the 74-year-old former president on January 13, charging him with inciting insurrection during an impassioned speech January 6 to supporters before the assault on the Capitol.
Trump’s followers wanted to stop a joint session of Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s November 2020 election victory. Among the rioters were members of right-wing groups that embrace theories associated with white supremacy.
“It’s a black mark on his record, and if he gets convicted, it’s a serious black mark,” says Susan Low Bloch, professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University Law Center. “It’ll have a huge significance on his life because he won’t be able to run again. It’ll have significance for his followers because they won’t be able to vote for him. And I think it’ll be a warning to future government officials not to engage in insurrections.”
Bloch acknowledges it is unlikely that enough Senate Republicans will join Democrats to convict the former president. A total of 67 senators, two-thirds of the chamber, are needed for a conviction. But 45 Senate Republicans have already voted to dismiss the impeachment trial before it begins, an indication of how they might vote as the trial goes forward.
Trump will also be the first president to be tried after leaving office. But top Democrats say he must be held accountable.
“Trump must be tried and convicted so no future president can think it’s OK to incite insurrection,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said.
Impeachment, the bringing of charges for alleged crimes, is the most serious of remedies for a wayward president. If convicted, a president can be removed from office or disqualified from running for public office in the future.
Only three presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868; Bill Clinton in 1998; and Trump in 2019 and 2021. Three of those four proceedings have occurred within the last 23 years. No president has ever been convicted.
Bloch testified before the House Judiciary Committee ahead of the Clinton impeachment. She was the only woman on the panel of 19 law experts. Although she believes the impeachment proceedings against Trump are warranted, she warns against using impeachment too liberally as a political tool or a slap on the wrist for fear of reducing its potency as a legal remedy.
“It should not be what I call ‘the scarlet letter,’” Bloch says. “It should be used only when the person arguably should be removed from office … or in this case, since he’s already removed, that you want to keep him from running again. That’s the only time you should use it. And if you use it for anything less than that, then you cheapen it.”
The full historical significance and impact of a president being impeached twice and tried after leaving office could take decades to unravel. But historians have already begun to piece together the gravity of the events of January 6, saying that a national reckoning is needed in the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol in order to avoid devastating long-term consequences for the nation.
“I think it’s important to note that this is not just a second impeachment, but it is a country grappling with a traumatic political eruption,” says Timothy Naftali, an associate professor of both history and public service at New York University. “It was the first time in our history that an incumbent president tried to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power.”
Trump actively disputed the results of the 2020 election, claiming he lost because of widespread fraudulent voting and corrupt conduct by election officials. But his own attorney general, William Barr, confirmed that the Justice Department uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would change the election outcome. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also said he saw no evidence that millions of people voted illegally, as Trump repeatedly claimed.
Yet, hours after the attack on the Capitol, 147 Republicans — eight senators and 139 representatives — voted to overturn the election results.
“There has never been a substantial move in the Congress to invalidate an election,” says James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. “This is unusual. This has never happened before, this questioning of the legitimacy of an election by people whose own party leadership and elected officials have said was fair and clean.
“And when you pair that with an insurrection, a mob attacking the Capitol, clearly we have a large number of Americans who are alienated from the political institutions that constitute our democracy.”
The last most significant disruption at the U.S. Capitol occurred in 1861, when Southern senators vacated their seats in the run-up to the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform opposing the expansion of slavery in the territories. After his 1860 election, Lincoln rejected any compromise that would result in the Southern states seceding from the nation.
At least 620,000 Americans died during the Civil War. When the conflict ended, Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy, was accused of treason and imprisoned. But he was never put on trial and left prison after two years.
On December 25, 1868, President Andrew Johnson — who succeeded Lincoln after Lincoln was assassinated — pardoned all former Confederates who fought against the United States. Some of those men became architects of the Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation.
“The sweeping under the carpet of the realities of the Civil War provided an opening for Southern states to impose a form of apartheid that lasted until the mid-1960s,” says Naftali, who is also a former director of the Richard Nixon presidential library where he oversaw the installation of a Watergate exhibit involving the only U.S. president ever to resign.
In 1877, Congress settled a presidential election dispute by brokering a deal that led to the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of white supremacy in the South — all in the name of a tighter political union.
“Reconstruction was overthrown through terrorism by white supremacists, and most historians would agree with that,” Grossman says. “But it took us a long time to recognize that.”
He says the missteps that occurred after the Civil War demonstrate that it is a mistake to try to heal a nation without understanding and acknowledging what led to the rupture.
“In the 19th century, the nation healed what some people saw as its wounds and achieved a superficial unity by sacrificing the rights of Black Americans,” he says. “We can’t do that again.”
Road to healing
America’s history shows the nation pays a high price when racists are emboldened or accommodated, rather than condemned, shamed and ostracized, historians Grossman and Naftali say.
Repairing the damage from the Capitol insurrection will require a broader understanding of how much was at stake on January 6.
Naftali says the path to healing passes through truth and in laying the groundwork to effectively combat the domestic terrorist threat of white supremacy.
“The story now is much bigger than Donald Trump,” he says. “It’s how do we, as a nation, come together and persuade millions of Americans that they followed a false prophet, and that they bought into a worldview that is toxic nonsense? I don’t think the trial of one person, or the use of one constitutional amendment, is going to get at that much bigger problem.”
Because most ardent Trump supporters are unlikely to ever believe Democrats, Republican officials and influencers will have to take the lead in lowering the temperature and steering followers away from polarization, according to Naftali.
“The challenge is for Republicans … to accept that January 6 was a threat to our constitutional system, and then to explain why violent dissent is illegal and unacceptable and is not protected by the First Amendment,” Naftali says. “This will take time. This entails deradicalizing a part of the Republican Party.”
Perry says democracy is endangered when the extremes take hold.
“Most Americans are in the middle of the political spectrum. Yes, we have extremes, but they typically are the minority. And usually the center holds, and therefore our democracy holds,” she says. “(U.S. Supreme Court) Justice (Sandra Day) O’Connor used to say democracy is not genetic, you have to teach every generation about it, and what it means, and how to live in it, and how to work in it, and how to operate it, and how to be a part of it.”