Donald Trump’s campaign boast that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” may still hold true for the dead-enders who cling to the fantasy that he’s a competent commander in chief. But the Trump team doesn’t set the standard for presidential accountability. That was done back in 1787, when the initiators of the American experiment delineated the impeachment power that is suddenly all the rage.
Impeachment is not the only tool for checking and balancing errant presidents. Congress has the power of the purse, the duty to declare wars, and “advise and consent” oversight authority. Unfortunately, the separation-of-powers protections outlined in the Constitution have taken a beating on the long march from George Washington’s “prudent” administration to the imperial presidency that Trump inherited.
Thankfully, the American people have always been more constitutionally inclined than the political elites. Tens of millions of good citizens are now prepared to explore every option for checking the authoritarian instincts of a man who would be what patriots have always feared: “a king for four years.” In a Public Policy Polling survey from mid-May, 48 percent of the people surveyed said they supported impeachment, compared with just 41 percent who were opposed.
The list of grievances fueling the “Impeach Trump Now” campaign may have started with complaints that this billionaire president is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause—a concern highlighted by Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan when he warned in a February 2 floor speech that, should President Trump fail to address his potential conflicts of interest and continue to disregard demands for transparency, “We’ll have to take other actions, including legislative directives, resolutions of disapproval, and even explore the power of impeachment.” But that list of grievances has grown exponentially larger as this presidency has lurched from crisis to crisis.
After the president fired FBI director James Comey—in what Trump essentially admitted in a nationally televised interview was a blatant attempt to thwart the bureau’s investigation into the charges of Russian involvement with his campaign—Pocan said the “impeachment clock” had moved “an hour closer to midnight.” When it was revealed that Trump had confided to Russian officials after the Comey firing that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” the impeachment clock’s alarm sounded. According to Comey, Trump had requested that the FBI drop its investigation into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn and his ties to Russia. Those details now read like the elements of an article of impeachment for obstruction of justice. As Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe explained in a May 14 argument for impeachment, “This president has shown that he cannot be trusted to remain within the law, and our Constitution’s last resort for situations of that kind is to get the person out of office.”
Of course, House Speaker Paul Ryan disagreed—and as long as this relentless Republican partisan holds his fractious caucus together, he can thwart any efforts to hold Trump accountable. But the acknowledgment by a few back-bench Republicans, like Justin Amash of Michigan, that Trump’s apparent obstructions of justice could be grounds for impeachment raised the stakes even higher in May.
Unfortunately, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s response was to tell impeachment-inclined Democrats to “curb their enthusiasm.” Top Democrats say they want to let the current host of inquiries— including a narrowly drawn investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s Russian entanglements—follow their slow and protracted course. In fact, Democrats in Washington are betting that Trump’s declining popularity will help the party prevail in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
That determination to put political strategy ahead of principle is wrong, both morally and practically. If any official—the president or, for that matter, the vice president or the attorney general—betrays the public trust and threatens the republic, that official should be impeached and removed. The people know this, and history reminds us that voters reward honest advocates for accountability. After the Democrats addressed Richard Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors in 1974, they swept that year’s congressional elections and took the presidency in 1976. (Even the Republicans who abused the impeachment process with their petty—and unpopular—targeting of Bill Clinton’s “sexual relations” in 1998–99 maintained control of Congress in 2000; they even secured the presidency, albeit under tainted circumstances.)
Impeachment is a powerful tool, and the impeachment process should be treated seriously. But there is nothing serious, or responsible, about taking a constitutional remedy off the table, as too many DC Democrats have suggested. We would all do well to recall George Mason’s counsel from the summer of 1787: “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued.” The founders may not have anticipated a rogue quite like Donald Trump winning the presidency when they crafted the impeachment power, but they did anticipate crises like this one. And they gave us the tools, as citizens acting through our elected representatives, to thwart the monarchical impulses of “elected despots.”
Impeachment is not a “constitutional crisis”; it is rather the cure for one. A failure to apply that cure, for reasons of caution or partisan calculation, is a form of political malpractice that ill serves the republic that not just presidents but members of Congress swear to defend.