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SMU Historian Discusses The Trump Impeachment Trial’s Place In American History

President Trump
Evan Vucci
Associated Press
President Donald Trump holds up a newspaper with a headline that reads "Trump acquitted" as he speaks in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 6.

Donald Trump is only the third president in American history to be impeached. Dallas-based historian Jeffrey A. Engel sat down with Think’s Krys Boyd to discuss how Trump’s impeachment and acquittal might influence American history and the future of the presidency.

Some have criticized the impeachment process as being too political — but that is exactly what the founding fathers intended, according to Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and co-author of "Impeachment: An American History.”

“There’s really no secret to this in the sense that the founders wanted people to play out politics because they didn’t think politics was a bad thing,” he said. “What they were more worried about, obviously, was partisanship, which George Washington was vehemently against.” 

While many senators have been criticized for partisan voting, Engel said their actions aren’t necessarily out of line with their constitutional role. 

“They’re not there to judge whether the president was innocent or guilty of the charges, and they’re not a judge — they’re not there to render judgment,” he said. “They’re there to use their experience to say whether or not to remove the president from office, whether it’s in the best interest of the country.” 

Engel said the impeachment trial reflects the expansion of executive power that began long before Trump entered office. He said it first started in 1903 when Theodore Roosevelt established the “imperial presidency,” an unprecedented move to expand the powers of the American presidency to include making key policy decisions.

The executive office has become “far more powerful than the founders would have envisioned or desired,” Engel said. The founding fathers designed the Constitution with the idea of a “struggle of powers” between the congressional and executive branches — a healthy competition. Engel called it “dangerous” and “troubling” that the Senate would defend the executive to the extent that it has. 

He said the Senate’s “failing to jealously guard its prerogatives and duties as outlined by the Constitution” will be something that historians will look back on a decade or more from now. 

“One thing we can assure ourselves of is that the founders would have been really quite shocked, if not aghast, at the very notion that the Senate majority leader would work so hard to defend presidential power and presidential authority,” Engel said. 

President Trump's impeachment trial has set a number of precedents. With Republican Mitt Romney’s vote to convict Trump, it became the first Senate impeachment trial in history in which a senator voted against their own party. It was also the first Senate impeachment trial where no witnesses were called, and the first time a president was impeached before reelection. 

Engel said Trump's acquittal also creates a precedent that opens the door for future presidents not to comply with House subpoenas. Trump’s refusal to respond to congressional subpoenas goes directly against the founding fathers’ position on the issue.

In a 1796 letter to Congress regarding a conflict about a treaty, President Washington explicitly wrote that impeachment would be the one exception that would require full disclosure of all documents requested by the House. 

“Washington was very clear that I have executive prerogatives, unless it’s impeachment. Period,” Engel said.

He also said the impeachment trial will shape Trump’s legacy and how future generations of children learn about his presidency. 

“There is no doubt that this is, I wouldn’t say the first line of the chapter on President Trump in any future history, but definitely the first paragraph,” Engel said. “We’re going to remember, as with Clinton, as with Johnson, schoolchildren will remember ‘oh yes, that was a president that was impeached.’” 

Looking forward, he said the upcoming election will determine how the history books write about this impeachment trial. 

“We have the only case of a president being impeached before an election,” Engel said. “His victory or loss will determine whether or not the impeachment is viewed as successful or not.” 

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.