Presidential impeachment could become a regular feature of the political landscape, but that doesn’t mean it will be an effective strategy to corral an executive, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan told a University of Virginia audience on Friday.
Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were impeached, but not convicted, in the last two decades. The process energized the base of the political party leading the impeachment effort but bolstered the resolve of the impeached president’s party, as well, he said.
“I think it has been cheapened and demeaned as a process. I think it has become more of a political weapon,” said Ryan, a Republican who served 20 years as a Wisconsin congressman before retiring in 2019. “I think it’s unfortunately going to become more of a regular tool than it ever should be. It’s not something that [Alexander] Hamilton and the [Constitution’s] framers had in mind.”
Ryan was a guest of the UVa Center for Politics and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He made his comments at program held at the Rotunda and led by the Center for Politics’ founder and director, Larry J. Sabato.
First elected to Congress in 1999, Ryan served as speaker of the House from 2015 until his retirement. He currently teaches at the University of Notre Dame and works for policy research organizations.
“[Trump’s impeachment] brought the [Democratic congressional] caucus together and gave hope and rise to the Democratic base only to squash their feelings when it failed. It also galvanized and agitated the Republican base and brought it together,” Ryan said. “It’s bad for the country and it hyper-polarizes the nation.”
Ryan said both Clinton and Trump were impeached during strong economies, which led most Americans to continue supporting the presidents. In both cases, popular support for the impeached presidents and their parties increased.
“I was running for the first time during the Clinton impeachment and [the national Republican Party was] running ads about how to explain impeachment to your kids. The more ads they ran for impeachment, the more my numbers went like this,” Ryan said, moving his hand in a downward motion. “They finally realized they were grinding me into the ground with those ads and changed them.”
Ryan said Trump’s impeachment solidified the president’s base. He noted that the Clinton impeachment did the same for Democrats.
“[Republican leaders] tried to make that election about impeachment and we lost a bunch of seats. We barely hung onto our majority,” he said. “Clinton was running in a good economy. Think of what you liked about Bill Clinton at the time; you liked the economy.”
Ryan said he watched the Trump impeachment and doesn’t believe the president’s actions rose to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that would justify removal from office. He said he had no issues with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, voting to convict Trump on one of the two counts.
“I think it was purely a conscience vote,” Ryan said. “That’s just who Mitt is. I never held a conscience vote against a person. That’s why they were sent to Congress in the first place.”
Friday’s hour-long program was relaxed, informal and often humorous and began with Ryan changing into an orange-striped tie with his blue jacket prior to the program to match UVa’s colors.
Sabato, who was attacked on Twitter by Trump earlier this month, led off the program with a question about how Ryan handled Trump’s attacking tweets while in office. Sabato told Ryan the question was “for a friend,” which brought a hearty laugh from the audience.
“Well, the question is, who would that friend be? If it’s a person with $54 billion, then I’d hire thousands of Californians to work on Twitter on my behalf to work on responses,” Ryan joked. “If you’re not the person, let it roll of your back. [Trump is] a counter-puncher. When he counter-punches, it just is what it is and I just would shrug my shoulders, let it roll off and move on.”