To impeach, or not to impeach? That is the question. I’m not ambivalent about the Trump presidency, which I regard as a calamity on nearly every front. But I am ambivalent—very—about impeachment.
Sentiment among Democrats of various stripes has waxed and waned. There was a big push back in January, coinciding with the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. With its lurid descriptions of dysfunction in the White House, the book deepened widespread worry over Trump’s erratic behavior, and a public referendum ensued on whether he is mentally fit to govern. The Times, operating in Daily News mode, issued a lead editorial, “Is Mr. Trump Nuts?” A Yale professor of psychiatry brought out a book titled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, claiming that Trump is “unraveling”—a charge that spurred the remarkable immigration roundtable clearly staged to show that our president was still relatively raveled. The Yale professor, Dr. Bandy Lee, insisted that Trump constitutes a “public health risk,” due to his capacity for initiating “catastrophic violence,” and that mental-health professionals—with an eye toward removal through the Twenty-fifth Amendment—had a “duty to warn” about a president’s psychological instability.
Such comments spurred a backlash, with commentators citing a half-century tradition against armchair psychiatric diagnosis. That tradition of restraint dates to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy, when an array of psychiatrists went on record questioning his mental fitness (the antediluvian among us will recall that the Goldwater campaign slogan, “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,” was pastiched by opponents as “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts”). The attempted intervention resulted in the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” adopted by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, deeming it “unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination” of the subject. The importance of following this rule prompted the chair of psychiatry at Columbia medical school to urge colleagues to refrain from diagnosing Trump, in an op-ed titled “Maybe He’s Just a Jerk.”
The anniversary of Trump’s inauguration brought impeachment talk that was political as well as psychological. In “Trump’s Threat to Democracy,” Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cited a pair of political scientists who assessed his “dangerous authoritarian” tendencies. January also saw the revelation that Trump had ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, only to back off when the White House counsel threatened to resign; this disclosure led one former Justice Department official to comment that Mueller was assembling what was sure to be an “overwhelming case of obstruction of justice.” The ever-reasonable David Leonhardt, in a January 29 Times column, asked, “Is serious consideration of impeachment fair?” The answer, he said, “is yes.” Reviewing the case for obstruction of justice, Leonhardt compared it with articles of impeachment against Nixon, listing ten damning actions on Trump’s part that in his view meet the threshold for what legal experts call “corrupt intent.” And arguments for impeachment came from unexpected sources—such as John Yoo, assistant attorney general under George W. Bush, and author of the notorious “torture memo,” who argued that “if Mr. Trump has truly impeded a valid investigation, Congress should turn to impeachment.”
During late winter and into spring, impeachment talk subsided a bit; but then, in the midst of midterm elections, it flared up again. That both parties are using the possibility of impeachment to their own ends reflects our polity’s ever-increasing polarization. In some progressive precincts, vowing to impeach is de rigueur for any candidate. On the other side, an April 9 front-page article in the Times reported on successful efforts to energize conservative voters by casting impeachment as part of the “deep-state” conspiracy that is a stock-in-trade of rightwing websites and talk radio. “You’ve seen it coming as surely as I have—a coup to overthrow the President of the United States,” reads one direct-mail pitch.