At the Center of the Impeachment Debate Stands a Constitutional Scholar

At the Center of the Impeachment Debate Stands a Constitutional Scholar

At the Center of the Impeachment Debate Stands a Constitutional Scholar

Representative Jamie Raskin has been training for the Trump impeachment inquiry his whole life.


Jamie Raskin is trying to read a book about impeachment every couple of days. On a Tuesday in late November, when final preparations were being made for the Trump impeachment inquiry to move to the House Judiciary Committee on which he sits, the Democratic congressman from Maryland was racing out of his office. He realized he’d left behind the most recent book, circled back to his office, and grabbed a slim volume by James Reston Jr., The Impeachment Diary: Eyewitness to the Removal of a President.

“This is it!” said the congressman, holding aloft the book, on the 1974 impeachment of President Richard Nixon. “I’m trying to read as much material as I can about Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, the Clinton impeachment, and I’m trying to get a sense of the process of each of those cases and the patterns of discussion and debate that are likely to return.”

It’s not as if Raskin was uninformed. Before his 2016 election to the House, he spent a quarter century at American University’s Washington College of Law, where he taught about famous impeachment cases and earned national recognition for his ruminations on the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.

“He’s the best constitutional lawyer in all of Congress,” says Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe. As the impeachment inquiry ramped up in November, Tribe argued that “Raskin’s clarity and dedication to truth will ultimately make the difference that the rule of law and the survival of constitutional democracy demand.” So why is the congressman doing all this reading? “We have to move at the speed of democracy right now to get this right.”

Getting it right is about much more than holding a president to account, Raskin adds. “Authoritarianism is on the march all over the world, and the new authoritarians have dredged up every ghost and skeleton from the 20th century,” he says, ticking off the evidence of a crisis that has unfolded on his watch—as a congressman first elected on the same day that Donald Trump secured the presidency.

“The marriage of autocratic forms of government with financial corruption is the principal mode of doing business in many governments around the world, and all of these figures have found each other—Putin in Russia, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungary, Sisi in Egypt, the homicidal crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and then Donald Trump in the White House and over at the Trump Hotel, which I call the Washington Emolument, the headquarters of all the corruption. So we do have a historic task here, and it’s not easy. We have got to rescue American democracy,” he says.

This is the gospel that Raskin preaches with an energy and enthusiasm that recalls his hero Thomas Paine—a fellow freethinker he names (along with Frederick Douglass) as the historical figure he’d most like to dine with—as he appears with increasing frequency on cable shows and at town hall forums where the busy congressman will spend 90 minutes or more making the case for a think-big approach to the crisis. Less than a month into Trump’s presidency, Raskin was delivering addresses like “The Future of American Democracy in the Age of Trump” before a packed main hall at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland. He was back on a Sunday night in early November, telling 500 cheering constituents that Trump’s pressuring of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into a potential election rival, former vice president Joe Biden, sounds to him like “the most impeachable thing an American president has ever done.”

Raskin was getting noticed even before the House Intelligence Committee handed things off to the Judiciary Committee at the end of November. And with that handoff, he’s in demand. “No matter how complicated the question, even if something just happened, he’s on top of it,” an MSNBC booker tells me when I mention that I am writing about the congressman. That’s what Raskin strives for. He wants to convince people not by engaging in the bombast playing out all around him but by speaking a language Americans will understand as logical and compelling. Instead of casually declaring Trump guilty as charged, for instance, Raskin explains, “I’ve been honest enough to say that I’ve seen overwhelming evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors, which has been uncontradicted. I’m open to factual contradiction if it’s out there, but so far, the only people who seem inclined to want to contradict it refuse to testify and speak under oath.”

Raskin, who has emerged as a key player on the Judiciary Committee in the same way that a previous generation of new members like Elizabeth Holtzman and Barbara Jordan stepped up during Watergate, wants to put what happens over the next weeks and months into perspective for the committee, for the Congress, and for the American people. He genuinely believes that a proper impeachment could persuade Republican senators to break with Trump—or, at the least, create a circumstance in which Trump becomes clearly and completely unacceptable to the American people—and that the act of holding a president to account could usher in an era of reform and activist government.

“Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that democracy is always either contracting and withering or democracy is expanding and growing,” Raskin observes. “So Donald Trump represents the shrinking and diminution of democracy, and the exercise of impeachment is a reassertion of the muscle memory of the American people. If and when we do this, it will lead us to think about the structural reforms that we need in American political democracy so we never get into a situation like this again.”

Putting critical moments in perspective and then using that perspective to push for change is what Jamin Ben Raskin was brought up to do. His office in the Cannon House Office Building is a museum of activism that extends back years—to an era long before the 56-year-old congressman’s birth in Washington, DC. A poster near the door recalls the 1934 campaign of Samuel Bellman, his maternal grandfather, who battled anti-​Semitism as a member of the Farmer-Labor Party and as a legislator in Minnesota in the 1930s. A great uncle, Max Raskin, was a socialist city attorney and then a judge in Milwaukee. Near the poster is a Kennedy White House Christmas card from when Jamie Raskin’s father, Marcus Raskin, served in John F. Kennedy’s administration. The elder Raskin was national security adviser McGeorge Bundy’s assistant on disarmament as well as a member of the delegation that laid the groundwork for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Marcus Raskin cofounded the Institute for Policy Studies in 1963, became a fierce foe of the Vietnam War, worked with Daniel Ellsberg to get the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, and emerged as one of the great radical thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Jamie Raskin graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, where he served as an editor of the Law Review. As a law professor in his own right, he established himself in academic and activist circles—championing student rights and campaign finance reform, representing Ross Perot in a fight to open up the 1996 presidential debates—and was as an outspoken critic of the Electoral College and as the author of Overruling Democracy, a scathing critique of Supreme Court decisions that have undermined democracy. (Many of his arguments were made in articles for The Nation.)

Eager to put theory into practice, Raskin challenged a veteran Maryland state senator in a 2006 Democratic primary, won, and went on to lead the successful fight to overturn the state’s death penalty. In 2016 he entered a crowded primary for an open US House seat for a Democratic district that is home to liberal strongholds such as Takoma Park. He beat two better-funded candidates in a campaign in which the activist and law professor Zephyr Teachout hailed him as “the lion for the anti-corruption forces.”

Barely a month after taking office, Raskin met with impeachment activists and accepted a petition with more than 860,000 signatures calling on the House of Representatives to initiate an impeachment investigation into Trump’s violations of the Constitution’s foreign and domestic emoluments clauses. But to the frustration of at least some, the congressman focused during his first term on the 25th Amendment, which outlines procedures by which a president who “is unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the office might be removed. After the 2018 election put Democrats in charge of the House, Raskin began working closely with new Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler to reassert the authority of the committee, including the subpoena power.

On a late November evening, Raskin and I are in his office discussing impeachment when the news comes that a DC District Court rejected White House claims of executive privilege intended to prevent former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before the committee. Both of Raskin’s smartphones fill up with text messages from reporters. Schedules are shuffled to make room for an appearance on MSNBC. An aide pops in with printouts of the decision. Raskin spreads out the 120-page document on a table and runs his finger across the paragraphs. He delights in the decision’s smackdown of the Trump Justice Department for getting “constitutional commands exactly backwards” and nods approvingly at a reference to “a core tenet of this Nation’s founding that the powers of a monarch must be split between the branches of the government to prevent tyranny.” This is vital stuff, as far as Raskin is concerned, not merely because it strengthens the committee’s hand but also because it points toward what he hopes will be a reassertion of congressional authority over the executive branch.

“Oftentimes my Democratic colleagues will jump up on the floor after Trump commits this or that outrage against the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, and they’ll say, ‘Mr. President, you have to stop doing this. We are a coequal branch of government.’ And I just want to scream,” Raskin says. “I know that this is dogma in fifth-grade social studies classes across the country, but we are not a coequal branch of government. We are the primary and predominant branch of government, and my colleagues need to understand that.” Raskin tested the concept at the Unitarian church, asking, “If we were coequal branches, why is it that the founders say that Congress can impeach the president but the president can’t impeach the Congress?” That line earned a standing ovation, which didn’t really surprise him.

As a congressman who takes the time to call 10 to 15 constituents every weekend, Raskin recognizes that “the Ukraine episode has caught the public imagination precisely because it’s vivid, it’s contemporaneous, and it’s outrageous and unprecedented.” But it is also, he argues, “perfectly consistent with an unlawful course of conduct that has taken place from the beginning.” This is why he talks in expansive terms about holding the president to account for obstructions of justice, witness tampering, and refusals to cooperate with Congress—and for violating the Constitution’s foreign and domestic emoluments clauses.

“I think I bring some depth of constitutional vision to this process of figuring out what has gone so wrong with the Trump administration,” Raskin says. “There has never been a more impeachable president than Donald Trump, based on his monarchical pretensions, ambitions, and misconduct in office.” Raskin adds that tackling Trump’s abuses will give Americans a sense that it is possible to challenge entrenched power—and to achieve immense change. How immense? “There are only two things we need to do: One is to save the democracy, and the other is to save the human species.” Raskin reminds me that everything Congress does, even impeachment, “takes place in the shadow of climate change.” This is what he means by thinking big. He hardly wants to diminish the importance of holding a president to account. Quite the contrary: He wants to expand the sense of the moment, to put it in a grander perspective, so that if and when this president is impeached, Americans will be inspired to believe again in the power of the people to make their government act.

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