When Donald Trump was elected, Stanford students took to the streets en masse. More than 400 stormed to White Plaza that evening for a “F*ck Trump” rally, where security guards monitored the crowd and then-Provost John Etchemendy addressed the group.
A month ago, amid allegations that the president pressured the leader of a foreign government to investigate one of his political rivals, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the start of impeachment proceedings. Capitol Hill has since been convulsed by the process, with a slew of diplomats and officials testifying before Congress on an almost daily basis about potential misconduct in the nation’s highest office.
Stanford students aren’t so interested.
“For me it’s not really a top issue,” said Disha Dasgupta ’20, who described being very upset by Trump’s victory as a frosh.
“Even if he does get removed” from office, she added, “I don’t think it’ll affect what’s already been done.”
Many other people express sentiments mirroring Trump’s, she said, something unlikely to change substantially with his ouster.
Trump has done several things that warrant impeachment in her view, Dasgupta said, but when she first heard about the inquiry, she was indifferent. In part, she said, it stems from a feeling of disconnection from Washington politics.
Many of the president’s actions warrant impeachment, “and he hasn’t been impeached,” Dasgupta said. “I really don’t think about it because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I think, at that sense, because it doesn’t correlate.”
Jack Rakove, Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of history and political science, pressed the importance of impeachment and its status as a focus of public opinion.
“I’ve been telling my students on several occasions, ‘You are engaged in what is potentially a momentous historical episode,’” he said.
With Democrats’ fast-moving inquiry, he said, undergraduates might need more time to become engaged in the process. He compared political engagement today with that of the Watergate scandal in the early ’70s, when President Nixon resigned in the midst of an impeachment inquiry.
“The political consciousness in that period in some ways was very different from what it is now,” he said. “Maybe the kinds of issues that most motivate students — I think particularly at Stanford, it has often occurred to me that, as an institution, we’re so interested in solving real-life problems.”
“I think people my age had a very different kind of political consciousness,” Rakove, 72, said.
Stanford’s political groups’ take
Among undergraduates, Dasgupta is hardly alone in her lack of interest in impeachment proceedings — even campus politicos are focused on other issues.
Ana Cabrera ’20 is the vice chair of operations at Stanford in Government (SIG), the massive non-partisan student group dedicated to public policy. In the second week of October, she said that with SIG just getting underway, she hadn’t yet gotten a sense of members’ views on proceedings. But across campus, she said, impeachment didn’t seem to be discussed.
“I don’t see a lot of people following it at all,” she said, adding that she’d seen more discussion of the upcoming presidential election.
Without coming to a conclusion about whether the president should ultimately be impeached, Cabrera said the inquiry’s findings were “deeply concerning.” So why aren’t students interested?
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s, we’re in a bubble. I don’t know if it’s that we’re more focused on the 2020 Democratic primary.”
“But for some reason, at least in my immediate circle,” she added, “it doesn’t seem like people are following it as closely as I thought people might be. I think that the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were followed more.”
Most discussion of the proceedings, she said, looked past the inquiry itself to its potential implications on the upcoming election. Students on campus are “more worried how this might affect the 2020 election, and worrying how the general public is going to react about this impeachment, and are they going to take it out on the Democratic party,” Cabrera said.
Philip Eykamp ’20, a board member and former vice president of the Stanford College Republicans (SCR), said his group is also more interested in the 2020 race than in the impeachment inquiry.
“I mean, we care a little bit about it, but not that much,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”
Eykamp questioned the basis of the inquiry, which Pelosi launched amid reports of a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to open an investigation into Trump’s potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son. Key details of the complaint have been supported by witness testimony and the release of a rough transcript of the call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader.
Eykamp described the grounds for impeachment as “especially spurious,” asserting he saw no criminal behavior in the rough transcript, and called Biden’s conduct “at minimum sketchy.”
But while national GOP politicians have attacked the proceedings, with House Republicans even temporarily blocking an official’s testimony last week by occupying a secure chamber, Eykamp said the general attitude toward impeachment from SCR members has been one of ridicule.
“I think most people are just laughing at it,” he said, describing a perception of Democratic hypocrisy. “I mean, some people obviously are annoyed and angry. They think that Trump is being unfairly attacked here.”
Echoing concerns Cabrera said she had heard, Eykamp added that the inquiry might “backfire” on Democrats.
Eykamp said it was exceedingly unlikely that the proceedings could bring Trump’s removal from office, which would be a “horrible precedent and a horrible miscarriage of justice.”
“But it’s not as though we’re afraid of President Mike Pence,” he added. “We approve of him as well.”
In a follow-up email, questioning the legitimacy of the inquiry and objecting to the House’s process, Eykamp argued that Senate rules, but not the Constitution, require the chamber to try the president if the House votes to impeach him. He urged Senate Republicans to amend the rules “to restore the Senate’s prerogative to hold a trial or not on its own terms.” (The New York Times has reported that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sees a Senate trial as inevitable.)
The Constitution endows the Senate with “the sole power to try all impeachments.” David Alan Sklansky, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Stanford Law School who has dismissed Trump allies’ legal critiques of the inquiry, wrote in a statement to The Daily that there exist various interpretations of the passage.
“Some people interpret this to mean that the Senate has the power to try a case of impeachment but isn’t obligated to do so,” he wrote. “Other people, including me, think the best reading of the Constitution is that the Senate is required to take up the case; it can’t just ignore it.”
David Jaffe ’21, co-president of SCR counterpart Stanford Democrats, contended that there were grounds to remove Trump from office. He ventured that the House would impeach the president, but the Senate would not remove him. Still, he said, impeachment was important to students, with its connection to the 2020 contest.
“Elections always seem to catch people’s attention, particularly college students,” Jaffe said, singling out presidential elections as being of particular interest. “And given that the impeachment inquiry is tied to the presidential election, I would say this is of importance to many more students than the average political news.”
But compared to the upcoming election, he said, his group’s role in impeachment is limited.
“It’s a topic of discussion occasionally, but there’s not much that we can do as a campus Democratic group in that regard,” he said. “The best thing we can do is inform students,” he added, saying that Stanford Democrats’ leadership would discuss the inquiry with interested students.
When it comes to the 2020 race, the group aims to serve as a “uniting organization” for different campus groups pulling for specific Democratic candidates. Jaffe said his organization wanted to support them by sharing resources, and to ensure that the divisions came together for the general election.
“In general, elections are easier for the average student to understand — the impeachment inquiry, probably not so much,” he added later, describing the slew of witnesses appearing in impeachment hearings, sometimes behind closed doors.
Fatigue in the Trump era
Frank Willey ’22 said he was waiting to learn more before drawing any final conclusions about the inquiry, and was wary of hyped-up news reporting.
“There are a lot more issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis that I prefer to track over an impeachment,” he said, adding that he was still interested in the process’s results. “But in the meantime, I’m not going to spend all my time looking at different allegations and different accusations and trying to sort out what is true and what is not, because I trust investigators to do that.”
The real significance of impeachment, he said, lay in setting a precedent of holding presidents accountable, whether or not it ultimately resulted in removing them from office. He said he understood the grounds for beginning the impeachment inquiry, and was now waiting for experts to present the results.
“I look forward to seeing whether or not he is impeached, and seeing the reasons why, because that’s when the facts will be out there,” he said. “And then I will do my critical thinking and look into what that means. But for now, it’s all up in the air. And while it’s up in the air, I’m OK waiting for the dust to settle.”
Jaffe said depressed attention to impeachment proceedings could be part of the legacy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which concluded in the spring. That probe found that neither President Trump nor his team had coordinated with the Russian government, but made no determination on the question of whether Trump had obstructed justice, laying out potential evidence of such.
“People are probably expecting a do-over of Mueller,” Jaffe said. “Some very substantial things came out of the Mueller report, especially on obstruction of justice. And we saw how Republicans in the Senate, took the evidence that was facing them, ignored it and decided they didn’t want to act on it. The same thing is going to happen here. There’s going to be very clear evidence that is facing them, right in their face, and nothing’s going to happen.”
Eykamp said SCR members see impeachment proceedings as the latest in “a conveyor belt of different attempts to take down the president, and that it has as little legitimacy or even less legitimacy than the previous attempts.”
Cabrera suggested the muted response to the inquiry might be a symptom of fatigue. She recalled how campus erupted in turmoil the night of Trump’s election, with some students screaming or crying as they headed to the White Plaza demonstration.
“I think we’ve seen that unity of, everybody is upset about it, become more settled,” she said. “Now we all have a mutual understanding that we don’t agree with this, but it’s not as fierce and outspoken as it was back in 2016.”
She hypothesized that students might be tired of listening to Trump, or discussion of how he would be impeached or was unfit for office. Some Democrats, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), began calling for Trump’s impeachment within months of his Jan. 2017 inauguration, with Pelosi firmly resisting until this fall.
“If this would have been 2017, I think it would have been a whole different story,” Cabrera said. “But we’re near the end of the term.”
Law school professor Sklansky defended impeachment as a subject of public attention, reporting interest in the proceeding from students at the law school. But he contrasted the backdrop to President Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment with that of the current inquiry.
“There was a sense when President Clinton was impeached that we were veering all of a sudden into new and rarely charted waters politically and constitutionally,” he said. “People may have the sense that for the last three years we’ve been constantly in new and uncharted waters. So although impeachment is novel and different, everything is novel and different these days.”
Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’ stanford.edu.