Donald Trump Makes Watergate 'Look Like Child's Play' but Democrats Shouldn't Scream Impeachment—Yet: Laurence Tribe

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Hundreds of people from all walks of life gathered for a demonstration in Union Square, in response to Donald Trump's national emergency declaration, a move perceived as an unnecessary executive power grab in an effort to appeal to his base, rather than a response to an actual emergency, allowing the administration to allocate billions of federal dollars to the construction of the U.S.- Mexico border wall. Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Before Donald Trump was even confirmed as the Republican Party's nominee for the White House in the summer of 2016, he was besieged with threats of impeachment for his rabble-rousing rhetoric on the campaign trail. Then he actually became president.

Now, just over two years since he entered the Oval Office, calls for his removal are verging on deafening.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer has promised to spend a further of $40 million in order to get rid of Trump in an effort to flood the airwaves and the halls of Congress. A newly elected Democratic representative, just hours after being sworn into Congress, enthusiastically told her supporters that "We're going to impeach this motherf***er." Just this week another Democrat insisted that impeachment must begin before the country gets distracted by the necessity of the 2020 election.

Even a man who once proudly exclaimed that he'd take a bullet for Trump couldn't hold back on the alleged criminality of his former boss. "He is a racist. He is a conman. He is a cheat," Trump's former lawyer and "fixer" Michael Cohen told lawmakers, under penalty of perjury, in incendiary testimony on Capitol Hill last week. The accusation was enough to put impeachment advocates into a tailspin.

But Harvard Law constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe wants people to know that impeachment can be a double-edged sword.

"Impeachment is neither a magic wand nor a doomsday device," Tribe writes in his book To End a Presidency, which hit shelves last year and got a paperback release featuring a new epilogue this week. "Instead, it is an imperfect and unwieldy constitutional power that exists to defend democracy from tyrannical presidents."

The book, written with attorney Joshua Matz, offers a guide to the process of removing a president from office, the potential consequences and what role impeachment plays in our current state of partisan politics.

Tribe is particularly wary of the American public's obsession with discussing the removal of the president, telling Newsweek that the "danger of too much impeachment talk is that it's like crying wolf. By the time the wolf is at the door no one will believe you."

But now that Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in Trump's presidency, impeachment is closer than ever to becoming a reality. And while top Democrats remain wary on uttering the "I" word, the chamber has already launched sweeping investigations into abuses of power, obstruction of justice and corruption involving the president and those around him.

Tribe spoke to Newsweek about his book, the way Democrats are handling impeachment talk and what might happen next.

You write about the all-important role Congress plays in impeachment. What do you think of how Democrats have handled their oversight responsibilities since taking over the House of Representatives in January?

I think the Democrats are doing very well. They are pursuing investigations rather than impeachment. That is they are looking carefully and very broadly at all the different areas of possible presidential misconduct that have endangered the country and misconduct by others in the executive branch. They are not putting the cart before the horse by waving the red flags of impeachment before all the facts are out.

It seems to me that the Democrats are going about this the right way even though the net result is that it may become almost impossible, no matter what is discovered or what kind of smoking gun emerges, to actually impeach and remove Trump, even if Senators begin to move over, because we will get closer and closer to the 2020 election.

It's a real dilemma. It's a problem that the framers of the Constitution didn't exactly anticipate. They assumed if ever we had a president who was a demagogue and a real danger to the republic, Congress, regardless of alliances with the president, would do its constitutional duty and not let years go by before doing anything. The fact is that they didn't anticipate political parties, they didn't anticipate the degree of tribalism that we now have. They would have been shocked not so much by what an odd president we now have but by what a passive Republican Party we have controlling the Senate.

At this point, should House Democrats be considering impeachment?

I think they should be thinking purely in terms of discovering every fact that is relevant about how this president won office and how he has conducted himself in office. They really should talk as little about impeachment as possible because every time they mention it the other side says: "You see, you've already convicted the president and you don't even have all the facts yet."

Do you think that younger Democrats who are calling for impeachment are doing the party a disservice by bringing it up so often?

Frankly, yes. I think they are doing not only the party but the country a disservice. I'm every bit as upset by the way this president has conducted himself as I think just about anybody is. But if I were to go around calling for his impeachment, I think I would be undermining the necessary process of fact-finding. Although I understand Democrats who are chomping at the bit to get rid of this terrible president, I think they undermine their own goal by using the impeachment word so often.

A lot of connections have been made between what is happening with Trump and moments like Watergate or Bill Clinton's impeachment. Are those links warranted? Have we seen anything like this before?

I think we've never seen anything remotely as bad before. I think that comparing this with lying about oral sex with the White House intern is ridiculous because it's infinitely more serious. This makes Watergate really, honestly, look like child's play. I remember living through Watergate and I thought it was serious, but I never thought it posed a real threat to the survival of democracy the way the conduct of the Trump presidency might.

How do you see this all coming to an end? Is Robert Mueller's special counsel report going to be the final judgment on this issue?

It's a big mistake to conflate everything with the Mueller report. Even when the report comes out the investigations are going to continue in the Southern District of New York and in the House of Representatives. The Mueller report will by no means by the final word, though I think it's very important that it be made public and transparent.

At this point, what do you consider to be the more dangerous option for our democracy and the Constitution: impeaching Donald Trump or letting him finish the remainder of his term?

It depends on what facts are uncovered and how close we are to the 2020 election by the time we uncover them. In general, letting someone hold onto the presidency after committing very serious high crimes and misdemeanors that endanger the republic is probably worse in terms of the survival of democracy than the upheaval that impeaching and removing the president would be.

Is there a fear that when Donald Trump leaves office, whether it be through impeachment or not, that there is not going to be a peaceful transition of power?

I'm quite afraid of it, yeah. Michael Cohen's testimony ended on that ominous note and the president has conducted himself in a way that makes it at least questionable whether there will be a peaceful transition.I wouldn't put it past this president to take us to war in order to create a national emergency that he will say requires that we defer the transition and defer the inauguration of a new president. Those are real dangers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.