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What Impeachment?
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What Impeachment?

The House GOP dabbles in alternate history.

Rep. Elise Stefanik with other House Republicans at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on September 29, 2022. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley has caused scarcely a ripple as a presidential candidate, rising from 3.3 percent in primary polling at the start of this year to 3.6 percent today. But last weekend, for one shining moment, she made a splash.

She became the main character on Twitter for a day.

As of Tuesday afternoon this item had 32 million views and counting, most of them unfavorable judging from the tenor of replies she received.

I do remember how simple life was and how easy it felt back then. That’s because I was a child, fortunate enough to live in a home where my basic needs were met. My biggest worry was homework.

Someone of age during the 1980s might not remember the era as fondly, especially if they aren’t white and straight. Crime was higher; medicine was worse; information was much harder to access; nuclear war seemed likely. People were poorer. Lifespans were shorter. Newborns were less likely to survive infancy.

Yet it all seems like a lark in hindsight to some conservatives nostalgic for a time when the culture was more sympathetic to their views. It’s equal parts poignant and pitiful to find Haley, touted for years as the candidate of the Republican future, pandering to those conservatives about making America great again by idealizing the much-less-than-ideal past.

Phony nostalgia is the best she and most other politicians can do to meet the right’s demand for reassurance that America was better when it looked and sounded more like them. But what if there were a way to take the next step and rewrite history itself to make it more accommodating to Republican sensibilities?

There might be. Revisionism is suddenly all the rage in the U.S. House of Representatives.

After the Senate acquitted Donald Trump at his first impeachment trial in February 2020, Nancy Pelosi was undaunted. The upper chamber can be as irresponsible as it likes, the then-speaker said, but nothing it does can change what happened in the House. “The president has been impeached forever,” she crowed.

To which Trump, also undaunted, said: We’ll see about that. “Should they expunge the impeachment in the House? They should because it was a hoax,” he told reporters at the time.

He hasn’t said a word on the subject since, as far as I can tell, yet expungement is lately in vogue among House Republicans.

Last week two of Trump’s most slavish cronies in the caucus introduced resolutions that aim to undo his two impeachments. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s legislation, targeting the first one, is short and sweet; Elise Stefanik’s counterpart, targeting the second, is more elaborate. The resolutions don’t purport to “repeal” or “overturn” the House impeachment votes held in 2019 and 2021, notably, but to banish them from official existence entirely. If enacted, each would have the effect of expunging the record “as if such … Articles had never passed the full House of Representatives.”

In theory, at least. Per Charlie Sykes, legal experts find the idea of the House retroactively disappearing an impeachment to be cockamamie, including the normally Trump-friendly Jonathan Turley. “It is not like a constitutional DUI. Once you are impeached, you are impeached,” he told one news outlet. Even if the resolutions pass, there’s nothing stopping a future Democratic House majority from expunging the GOP’s expungement—an un-un-impeachment, as it were.

Of course, a subsequent Republican House majority could expunge that expungement, amounting to an un-un-un-impeachment. And then a later Democratic House majority could—you get the idea.

Perhaps, centuries from now, it’ll be a House tradition whenever the out-party wins control of the chamber that they undertake to un-impeach or re-impeach Donald Trump, as the case may be, on their first day in power.

Greene’s involvement in this stunt will tempt the reader to conclude that it’s unserious and will be treated as such by more responsible actors in the caucus. Alas, there aren’t more responsible actors in the caucus. Stefanik, her co-sponsor, is the fourth-ranking Republican in the House and a potential future speaker. And the current speaker sounds open to the initiative, telling reporters last week that he’d back the resolutions (eventually, after referring them to committee). “I voted against both impeachments. The second impeachment had no due process,” Kevin McCarthy said, justifying his support.

If you hate what the Republican Party has become, this episode has all the hallmarks as to why. 

The players have plainly prioritized selfish professional ambition over all other considerations. They’re telling unusually pernicious lies toward that end. They’re abetting a rotten partisan culture that consists of little more than endless personal loyalty tests. And they’re practicing terrible, shortsighted politics that will end up hurting the party, not to mention the country.

It’s a master class in how the GOP operates in the Trump era.

1. Selfishness. There’s a rational reason for Stefanik and Greene to champion expungement, as each has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump next year. He wants an unthinking servant on the ticket next time to avert any future Pence-style betrayals. What better way for the two of them to signal their absolute fealty than by seeking to memory-hole his greatest embarrassments as president?

The official statement they issued announcing their resolutions even sounds like him. “The first impeachment of President Trump was a politically motivated sham,” Greene’s statement reads. “The Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, weaponized a perfect phone call with Ukraine to interfere with the 2020 election.” The word “sham” appears three times in the span of three sentences. The VP hopefuls are leaving it all on the field.

McCarthy also has selfish reasons to encourage expungement. He’s had a bit of trouble lately with the Freedom Caucus, you may have heard, and might be searching for ways to purchase goodwill with them on the cheap. Holding a vote on expunging Trump’s impeachments is one way. Or perhaps the demands from populists to impeach Biden or his deputies have begun to make the speaker squirm as they’ve grown louder; McCarthy may regard that as more political trouble than it’s worth, leading him to try to channel MAGA energy into unimpeaching Trump instead.

Last year Rolling Stone reported that Trump had phoned his allies in the House on the assumption that they’d soon be back in the majority and asked them not whether they planned to impeach Biden but “how many” times. McCarthy isn’t willing to balance the scales for Trump by impeaching his likely 2024 opponent twice—but he might be willing to balance them by expunging Trump’s record. As ridiculous as it would seem to have Trump running around on the trail next year, post-expungement, insisting that he’d been impeached precisely the same number of times as his opponent, he’s plenty ridiculous enough to do it. 

2. Unusually pernicious lies. All politicians lie, I dutifully concede, but there are lies and there are lies. McCarthy’s claim that the second impeachment was rash and ill-considered after Trump had spent two months trying to orchestrate a coup in plain sight, hour by hour on TV and Twitter, is a lie. Granted, it’s a common lie among Republicans who lacked the courage to vote for impeachment and then hid behind a flimsy procedural excuse, the same way Senate Republicans did in declining to convict Trump because his term as president had already run out. But it’s a lie nonetheless.

Elise Stefanik’s expungement resolution is chockablock with conspiratorial innuendo about the 2020 election that together amounts to a lie about who rightfully won the presidency.

Whereas Article I of the Resolution omits any discussion of the circumstances, unusual voting patterns, and voting anomalies of the 2020 Presidential election itself;

Whereas prior to considering and voting on the Impeachment Resolution, Democratic leadership in the House made no effort to understand the rationale behind the widespread mistrust harbored by American voters in the wake of the 2020 Presidential election;

Whereas President Trump won 18 of the 19 bellwether counties across the country that have predicted the winner of every Presidential election since 1980;

Whereas President Trump received approximately 10,100,000 more votes than in the 2016 Presidential election, making President Trump the first incumbent President in 132 years, since Grover Cleveland’s failed bid for reelection in 1888, to have increased his vote from his initial election and seemingly still not won reelection in the subsequent cycle

Is it good for America to have a House Republican leader still amplifying Trump’s grand falsehoods about the “rigged election” in mid-2023?

Wrong question, Stefanik would say. The right question is: Is it good for Elise Stefanik?

3. A rotten partisan culture. The point of expungement isn’t to convince Americans that Trump did nothing wrong to inspire his two impeachments, obviously. No voter who faults him for the Ukraine quid pro quo or, especially, for January 6 will have their mind changed by the fact that Marjorie Taylor Greene and her colleagues think those two episodes are no big deal.

The point of expungement is to normalize a new litmus test of loyalty for the Republican Party, the latest and greatest yet devised. Do you support Donald Trump so ardently that you’re willing to pretend he was never properly impeached in the first place provided that the House GOP gives you a tiny procedural fig leaf to do so?

Any ol’ right-wing partisan might support Trump in spite of his impeachments, reasoning that the so-called Biden crime family is surely more corrupt. But a true Trump loyalist, post-expungement, will take the logical next step. Asked whether he’s willing to vote for a candidate who endured two impeachments, he’ll look at the questioner quizzically and reply, “What impeachments?”

The most unnerving aspect of Trump’s authoritarian personality is the way he seems to divide information not into what’s true and what’s false but into what’s good for him and what’s bad, and to reshape perceptions of the latter accordingly—his own perceptions included. His spin about the “rigged election” of 2020 began as a cynical lie designed to save face, I think, and over time mutated into a heartfelt belief that spared him the agony of facing his failure. Losing was bad for Trump, ergo it can’t be true that he lost.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this too originated as spin and is gradually being assimilated psychologically into a “truth” he earnestly believes:

There’s not a lawyer in America who listened to the tape he’s describing and found it exonerating rather than incriminating. But that’s because lawyers approach reality passively, separating it into truth and falsehood; if they approached reality proactively as he does, they would understand that the tape must be an exoneration because an exoneration would be good for Trump.

Expungement will gauge the right’s willingness to adopt his mental pathology as their own. Was he in fact impeached in 2019 and 2021? If you think so, you’re still stuck in the losing mindset of pre-Trump Republican suckers. Whereas a fighting MAGA populist, recognizing that impeachment was bad for their hero, will instead reject that reality and substitute Trump’s own.

4. It’s terrible politics. Imagine being a centrist Republican representing a swing district, one of your party’s majority-makers in the House, and waking up one day to find that a member of the caucus leadership thinks it’d be worth everyone’s time to … relitigate whether Donald Trump deserved to be impeached.

Not just for the Ukraine matter either. For the other thing too. The bad thing.

And not just relitigate them. Vote on them. On the record, in the House, in the form of resolutions that would amount to a de facto apology that Congress had ever dared hold Trump accountable for his most blatantly corrupt behavior.

Some Republicans don’t need to imagine it:

To start with, Reps. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) and David Valadao (R-Calif.) both voted to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6 insurrection. Taking up this resolution would put them in a very difficult political predicament, to say the least.

Then there are a host of Republican lawmakers in districts that President Joe Biden won in 2020. To these vulnerable GOP lawmakers, such theatrics open them up to a no-win scenario. If they vote to expunge, the Republicans will look like they’re involved in some Trump-centric score settling. If they oppose the measure, they risk coming under heavy criticism by Trump loyalists.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told CNN’s Manu Raju last week that he wouldn’t vote for the resolution. “Not at this point, no,” Bacon said. “It sounds a little bit weird to me.”

You’ve heard of the “Streisand effect,” yes? Expungement would create a Streisand effect for the most disgraceful episode in the history of the Republican Party. Bad enough that Trump won’t let the GOP put January 6 behind it; now here comes Elise Stefanik to make her own members walk the plank on the subject.

The irony, of course, is that Trump ended up prevailing in both impeachment trials due to the partisan corruption of Senate Republicans. Populist diehards searching for vindication for him could simply point to the Senate’s verdicts as “proof” that the two House impeachments were unjustified. The impulse to rewrite history in his favor is so powerful, though, that it sometimes bleeds over into his successes. That’s how we ended up with him fulminating about millions of illegal Democratic votes after an election he really did win and with election officials recounting ballots to make sure he wasn’t shortchanged in counties where he took 70 percent of the vote.

If making the coming election about the past rather than the future assures Republican defeat …

… then the odds of Republican defeat are high, and will rise further once the expungement resolutions pass.

But if nothing else good comes from this, it will at least be amusing to watch Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and the other Trump challengers who tremble at the thought of questioning his fitness for office sweat through the politics of this issue.

“I don’t want to relitigate the past,” DeSantis will say when asked about expungement, offering no further comment and hoping that suffices. But Trump and his minions will spin his dodge as tacit agreement with the Democrats who impeached him while more traditional conservatives will groan at the governor’s timidity in once again declining to offend the prejudices of MAGA voters.

It may dawn on Ron DeSantis to his horror that “relitigating the past” is the entire point of the Trump-era GOP, both near-term in avenging their leader against his many political enemies and longer-term in making America as great again as it once was in Nikki Haley’s rose-colored imagination. A candidate once famously dubbed “DeFuture” may not have much of a future, it turns out, in a movement drowning in the past.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.