Later today, Donald Trump will become just the third president in American history to be impeached.
Because this outcome has been inevitable since at least late October, and because there is no practical prospect of the Senate voting to remove Trump from office, the impeachment has come to be seen as dull, lacking in drama, or yesterday’s news. This does not negate the seriousness of the charges against the president, nor the substantial evidence to support them. Nor, it’s worth recalling on this day, does it negate the symbolic import of the impeachment. Even without Senate removal, the stain of impeachment will forever be attached to Trump and his presidency.
Trump joins a dishonor roll in the company of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom were impeached but not removed, and Richard Nixon, who resigned when it became clear that he would be both impeached and removed. It’s no coincidence that these men have not fared well in presidential history. Johnson is remembered as a bungler and an apologist for white supremacy who sabotaged Reconstruction. Nixon’s name is shorthand for political corruption.
While his offenses do not measure up to Trump’s, Clinton is perhaps the most useful comparison. Clinton survived impeachment with his popular approval intact, buoyed by an otherwise successful term in office and a strong economy. But his reputation has suffered since he left office. There was never any dispute about whether Clinton perjured himself, as charged—he apologized at the time. Many Democrats felt bound by politics to defend Clinton, but with distance, lower political stakes, and changing perceptions about sexual mores, many liberals have become more forthright in criticizing him, accepting some of the central Republican arguments against him.