Stanford constitutional scholar Jack Rakove discusses second Trump impeachment trial

Jack Rakove - Stanford Report

While it might be tempting to compare the second impeachment of President Donald Trump to past U.S presidential impeachments, including Trump’s first, in order to predict how this one will conclude, history suggests any such exercise would be futile, according to Stanford U.S. historian and constitutional scholar Jack Rakove.

“At least from a historian’s vantage point, it is difficult if not impossible to derive a coherent theory or doctrine about how impeachments should operate,” Rakove said. “Each one has its own political dynamics that tend to overwhelm our desire to treat impeachment as the equivalent of a legal problem.”

Here Rakove addresses what the Founders wanted to safeguard their fledgling nation against when they created the impeachment process; unpacks the meaning of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” charge against Trump; and explains why he thinks the articles of impeachment are a useless element of the Constitution when presidents are concerned.

Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies, Emeritus, and a professor emeritus of political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences. His research focus includes the origins of the American Revolution and Constitution, the political practice and theory of James Madison, and the role of historical knowledge in constitutional litigation. He is the author of eight books, including Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Alfred Knopf, 1996), which won the Pulitzer Prize for history.


What did the Founding Fathers intend when they created the articles of impeachment? What were they afraid of, and how is that fear reflected in the proceedings we see today?

Any time we think about the origins of the two impeachment clauses (Art. I, Sect. 3Art. II, Sect. 4), it is important to recognize what a novel institution the presidency was. None of the framers of the Constitution could readily predict how the whole system of presidential election would work. They were uncertain whether the presidential electors would be able to make a decisive choice, or what would happen if a contingent choice of the president had to be made by the House of Representatives. Given that uncertainty about the political sources of presidential power, it made sense to create a mechanism that would make it possible to remove a president when circumstances warranted. Impeachment was the remedy they adopted to deal with especially controversial behavior.

But there was another reason why the framers were drawn to the idea of impeachment: Their political thinking was driven, even dominated, by an abiding fear of corruption, unbridled ambition and unchecked power. They actively worried that presidents who would individually possess the entire “executive power of the United States” would act corruptly, for selfish advantage or traitorous motives.