Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe wants to teach Americans a lesson about impeachment, warning that it is “too important and too vital a power to be bandied about as ordinary politics.”
Trump’s most ardent critics have been calling for impeachment since the day he was inaugurated, and while Democratic Party leaders have said it’s premature to talk about impeachment, a few House Democrats have already advocated for it.
The topic emerged again last week, when Trump tweeted that he has the “absolute right to pardon myself.” Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani argued that the President could not be indicted or subpoenaed while in office, saying he would have to be impeached first. “If he shot James Comey, he’d be impeached the next day,” Giuliani told HuffPost earlier this month. “Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him.” Meanwhile, Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer launched new ads in his multi-million dollar campaign to impeach Trump.
Tribe’s new book To End a Presidency, written with attorney Joshua Matz, offers a guide to the process of impeachment — a power they argue “should be invoked only under dire circumstances” — and wrestles with the consequences of taking such an action.
Tribe spoke to TIME about his book, Trump’s pardon power and the trouble with impeachment.
TIME: You write that sometimes discussion of impeachment is reasonable, but most of the time it’s “needless and harmful.” Where does discussion of impeaching President Trump fall in that divide today?
Tribe: I think it’s certainly reasonable to be thinking about it. What I think is unreasonable is expecting it to serve the purpose of a magic wand. It is totally predictable that—however justifiable it might be to remove this President—it simply isn’t going to happen through the impeachment process, at least not in the very near future. It’s premature to call for it the way people like Tom Steyer are because it’s going to be like the boy who cried wolf. This is not something that we can take lightly or do more than once to any given President. Impeachment is too important and too vital a power to be bandied about as ordinary politics, the way it has been ever since the Clinton years.
You have called for lawmakers to begin impeachment proceedings, though.
Ever since [special counsel Robert] Mueller was appointed, I’ve thought it important to basically chill out and wait until we know more. I’ve never actually called for immediate impeachment, although I certainly was saying that he had committed impeachable offenses.
Do you think people are overstating the threat that one man can pose to the Republic?
No, I think the framers knew, and we are now seeing that even one man—if he is not dedicated to the country, but dedicated to his own fame and wealth and backed up by a political party that has signed on for the ride—can pose an existential threat. It’s, in a sense, one man. It’s also, in a sense, one man and millions of people who back him up.
Does it make sense for Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani to discuss impeachment as the only remedy for a President’s illegal behavior?
It makes sense from his PR point of view. They know that impeachment is very unlikely, and if it occurs, it’s very unlikely to result in conviction. But the idea that a President is so much above the law that he cannot be indicted, I think, is false. The notion that you would have to go through an elaborate impeachment process before arresting and indicting a President is a fantasy.
Does the President have the power to pardon himself?
No. That’s so profoundly inconsistent with the premises of the whole American system of government that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by it.
How do we strike a balance between the harm of potentially living under a tyrant and the chaos that could be caused by the first successful removal of a U.S. President?
If I could answer that in just a few lines, there wouldn’t have been a need for this book. One of the main factors to take into account is: Would we favor removing the President through impeachment even if it happened to be a President we liked and had voted for? Another important test is whether the circumstances that make a successful impeachment possible might also make lesser remedies effective. We have to keep in mind that congressional oversight can constrain a President who is otherwise a renegade and can do it in ways that are less likely to leave lots of people feeling disenfranchised. Before we take as profoundly unsettling a step as removing a president, we have to take into account whether lesser measures will achieve the desired outcome.
Is there something about this political moment that the founders failed to anticipate when they created a power that could cause “national trauma”?
I don’t think they could have anticipated the rise of social media and the tunnel vision it would generate. They didn’t anticipate the rise of political parties and the division they represent. They didn’t have a crystal ball. But it’s interesting that those of us who’ve looked at what’s happened since still can’t come up with a better structure for getting rid of a President.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.