What’s Happening with Impeachment, and Democracy

Book talk examines what transpired behind the scenes of the Trump impeachments.
Unchecked Book Cover
Unchecked Book Cover

How could the impeachments of Donald Trump have gone differently? What do the outcomes presage for the country’s future?

These questions were the subject of discussion last Wednesday, November 2nd, when Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian, F06, came to Fletcher to discuss their new book, Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump, alongside Professor of International Law, Michael Glennon.

As colleagues at The Washington Post, Bade and Demirjian were chained to the Capitol fifteen to sixteen hours a day, reporting on the efforts to impeach Donald Trump, first in 2019 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and again in 2021 following January 6.

“About a month into [the first] impeachment investigation, we realized that we weren’t able to keep up,” said Demirjian, recipient of the 2019 Fletcher Women’s Leadership Award and currently a Pentagon correspondent at The Washington Post. “Our editors were asking questions. ‘Why are there only two weeks of hearings happening? That doesn’t sound anything like it was with Watergate. Why are these decisions being made?’”

Struggling to answer as many of these questions as possible while still covering the daily news churn, she and Bade partnered up to investigate. Together, they leveraged their shared access to sources on the intelligence committee and in congressional leadership.

We were hearing from Democrats,” said Bade, who now reports for Politico and is a political analyst for CNN. “They were putting out this publicly unified front behind Nancy Pelosi…but we would hear from our sources behind the scenes that they were not happy with what they were doing, and they felt like their case was falling flat with the public and they should be doing more to show the nation that Trump was dangerous. They were getting frustrated because they felt they were being batted back.”

In writing their account, the authors confronted significant preconceived notions, primarily that the two acquittals were inevitable, and that Democrats did everything they could to convict. “We found that that was not the case with the latter,” said Bade. “Democrats cut corners, pulled punches all in the name of political expediency, and those decisions came back to bite them.”

Bade and Demirjian formed a powerful team: Demirjian called Bade, “indefatigably determined,” while she was apt to go down rabbit holes. Their respective thinking and writing styles enhanced the book. 

The journalistic rigor and standards for fact checking both Demirjian and Bade are accustomed to preside over Unchecked. Yet, as Glennon notes, the book is a page-turner, written with suspense. Glennon and ­the co-authors likened it to a Shakespearian tragedy, stitched together by a series of missed opportunities that, were it not for timing and human error, could have changed history.

Beyond the politics and particularities of the two Trump impeachments, Bade and Demirjian also scrutinized the ramifications these efforts—and their execution—will have on the future of Congress’s power.

“Presidential impeachment happens so seldom that each one matters a lot. We realized that something was happening to impeachment also in the process,” said Demirjian. “This is a story not just about the political actors at a really unique and shocking time, but there was also something that happened to the levers of power constitutionally that we were going to try to get at.”

Notable efforts for a bipartisan investigation were made with Watergate, establishing a playbook for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Demirjian and Bade augur significant change in how impeachment is employed in our political future.

“Checks and balances are in peril,” said Bade. “I think it’s important to know how we got to this moment. What you’re going to get in this book that you won’t get in The Washington Post or The New York Times or even Politico—that Democrats are also at fault.”

Demirjian added, “It is difficult for people to question their heroes, especially at this very, very intense political moment when the stakes feel-and are-so high. People really want to believe the intent of the side they support was just and the execution was perfect, which has literally never happened in the history of time. Our book is uncomfortable for people to read, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”

Watch a recording of the discussion.