Critics of President Donald Trump have good reason to worry about the political effects of impeachment. If this year’s Senate acquits Trump of charges of abuse of power in foreign policy and obstruction of Congress, as seems likely, he may enjoy in boost in popularity when the electorate votes this November. But the biggest anxiety over a failed removal is not the political effects for 2020, but for 2021 and beyond. An acquitted and re-elected Trump might create a more dangerous rogue in the White House – one set on retribution and breaking more boundaries of constitutional law and ethics. But Congress might find it more difficult to stop him, having already failed once before.
Two old sayings – one military and one mutinous – highlight the risks. The first is, “Do not ﬁre till you see the whites of their eyes!” – often attributed to poorly provisioned American Revolutionary commanders at the battle of Bunker Hill. The idea is to wait until a danger is at its peak. An acquitted and re-elected Trump might be animated to take far more drastic foreign policy actions: Cut NATO ties and cozy up further to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his interventions in Europe and the Middle East? Bar all manufacturing imports to help U.S. industry? Annihilate anti-American foreign forces with a nuclear strike? All of these might enter Trump’s mind during a triumphant second term.
A second saying is, ''When you strike at a king, you must kill him.'' Ralph Waldo Emerson’s retort to a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, who tried to refute Plato, is a time-honored observation popularly revigorated by a criminal character on TV’s The Wire. If Trump retains power next year, he may well use his vindication at the polls to retaliate in unprecedented ways, even beyond the efforts that a paranoid Richard Nixon tried in the 1970s. Refuse to follow federal court rulings, as President Andrew Jackson supposedly suggested? Shut down news media or portions of the internet under emergency telecommunications powers? Arrest political opponents as terrorist-supporting detainees? With such a man, imagination might be the only limit.
In response to an extraordinary abuse of power by a second-term President Trump, responsible elected officials would need to muster all of their powers to depose him from office. But they would have thrown away some of their precious shot in 2020. “There they go again, pathetically trying to impeach me every year!,” Trump would undoubtedly shout – a cry that undoubtedly would resonate with some Americans. The wearied American public might tune out from yet another impeachment and trial. And thoughtful Republicans might hesitate to vote for presidential conviction so soon after voting to acquit in 2020. If a truly cataclysmic Trump outrage transpires in 2021 or beyond, conscientious Americans might wish that Democrats had held their fire until the times truly called for constitutional action.
Paul Boudreaux is a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport and Tampa.