”My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution,” declared Congresswoman Barbara Jordan as she embarked on the work of impeaching a president in 1974.
The Texas Democrat’s use of the word “spectator” was deliberate and vital. Members of the US House of Representatives were afforded the impeachment power not as an option but as a duty. It is an essential instrument of the Constitution, and it should be employed not when it is convenient but when it is necessary.
Ninety-five members of the House decided this week that it was necessary. They voted to consider a resolution from another Texas Democrat, Congressman Al Green, to impeach Donald Trump for using racist language to attack four Democratic congresswomen of color. Many of Green’s fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, argued for a slower process that would allow congressional inquiries to consider additional evidence of presidential wrongdoing—a process that next week will feature testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller. The opponents of Green’s proposal prevailed.
But the Texan told them they were on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the moment we are now in. Green argued that the issues and the moment were too urgent for any more delays. “The Mueller testimony has nothing to do with his bigotry. Nothing. Zero. Nada,” declared the congressman. “We cannot wait. As we wait, we risk having the blood of somebody on our hands—and it could be a member of Congress.”
Not long after the congressman uttered those words, the president was doubling down on his attacks—naming the names of Congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. At a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, Trump announced, “They are always telling us how to run it, how to do this. You know what? If they don’t love it, tell them to leave it.” At the mention of the name of Omar, who came to this country as a refugee from Somalia, wild chants of “send her back” erupted, as a gleeful Trump egged on the crowd.
Trump dismissed Green’s proposal to impeach him as “ridiculous.” In fact, it was a modern variation on a historic article of impeachment against one of the most vile presidents in American history: Andrew Johnson. Faced with objections to his undermining of the post–Civil War work of Reconstruction, his veto of civil rights legislation, and a litany of other concerns regarding his vile statements and obnoxious behavior, Johnson appeared at rallies across the country to rile up his supporters. His language was incendiary. As the University of Virginia’s Miller Center recalls, “Johnson [denounced] the so-called ‘Radical Republicans,’ specifically Representative Thaddeus Stevens, Senator Charles Sumner, and reformer Wendell Phillips, as traitors.”
Johnson accused his congressional rivals of “trying to break up the government.” He appealed to soldiers to “stand by me” in his confrontation with his critics, so that, “God being willing, I will kick them out. I will kick them out just as fast as I can.”
On February 24, 1868, the House voted 126-47 for 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson—including Article 10, which charged him with attempting “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.” Johnson would, by a single vote, escape removal from office by the Senate. But the House had done its job. And history reflects far more charitably on the chamber that checked and balanced Johnson, as opposed to the one that allowed the foul pretender to remain in office.
Trump uses different language than Andrew Johnson, But his demonization of his critics, particularly women of color, is straight out of his predecessor’s playbook. And so it was appropriate that Al Green’s response was straight out of the playbook of the Radical Republicans who challenged Johnson on behalf of racial justice and the republic.
The articles of impeachment against the 17th president of the United States took him to task for “intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues” against members of Congress. He deserved to be impeached for that. And he was.
Trump’s go-back-where-you-came-from racism merits an equal response. The full House refused to provide it. But 95 members of Congress, all of them Democrats, answered the call of constitutional responsibility with their votes on July 17, 2019. It is important to record their choice to take up the issue of impeachment, and to do so for this reason. We know that they acted for different reasons: some were ready to impeach immediately, some wanted to have the debate, some wanted to assure that Green’s proposal received proper consideration from the proper committee. What matters is that 95 members refused to go along with the tabling of Green’s resolution.
House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler was one of them, as was Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee chair Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) joined them in voting to explore the prospect of impeaching the president on the grounds that he has “brought the high office of the President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace, and disrepute, has sown seeds of discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.”
So did Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass (D-CA). Tlaib, a stalwart champion of impeachment, was joined by Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar in voting to have the impeachment debate. They were joined some of the savviest members of the chamber, including Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, the constitutional scholar who has done so much to put the struggle to impeach Johnson in context.
Remember these votes to have the debate on Al Green’s impeachment resolution—these votes to take Donald Trump’s racism as seriously as a previous Congress did Andrew Johnson’s racism.
History will eventually look as favorably on the courageous 95 who moved to hold Trump to account as it does on those who moved against Johnson 151 years ago. As for those who voted to table Al Green’s resolution? Many of them may yet come to embrace their constitutional duty. For now, however, they have chosen not to place a whole faith in the Constitution and, instead, to serve as spectators.