Wissot: Pros and cons of impeachment
Alexander Hamilton nailed it in Federalist Paper No. 65. He made it clear that the impeachment powers “proceed from the misconduct of public men” and “they are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done to the society itself.”
In case you missed it, the important word in that quote is “political.”
Applied to the decision this week by Democrats in the United States House of Representatives to begin an impeachment inquiry stemming from a whistleblower alleging President Trump pressured Ukraine’s president into opening a corruption investigation of Joe Biden by withholding military assistance, that legislative body does not have to apologize for seeking to impeach the president on political grounds. Those are the only grounds on which lawmakers can impeach Trump. The key question our elected officials need to answer is this: Did the president’s conduct lead “to injuries to the society itself?”
If that sounds highly subjective to you, you would be right.
The impeachment of an American president for “misconduct” has failed to result in conviction and removal from office twice in our history. Andrew Johnson survived a trial in the Senate by a mere one vote in 1868. Bill Clinton did far better in 1999. Not a single Democrat joined their Republican colleagues in voting to convict Clinton. The charge of perjury was split by a 50-50 vote and obstruction of justice by a 55-45 margin — both far short of the necessary two-thirds majority needed for removal.
Ironically, the only time impeachment has succeeded was when it was threatened but not used. Richard Nixon resigned from office in August 1974 a day after being told by Barry Goldwater and other Republican leaders that there were enough votes in his party to convict him in the Senate if articles of impeachment were drawn up in the House.
There is ample evidence from both the Mueller Report, and the breaking Ukraine scandal, that the president has committed impeachable offenses. The problem with pursuing an impeachment vote is this: Why bother, given the fact that up until now there hasn’t been a snowball’s chance in hell that the Republicans in the Senate would act to convict and remove Trump from office?
Here is where the political calculus comes in. The House can begin an impeachment inquiry, and if the evidence is sufficient, impeach the president but not forward the case to the Senate for conviction. Nothing in the United States Constitution prevents the House from doing this.
The House Democrats can then say to the 2020 electorate that we found sufficient evidence to impeach the president but chose to bypass the Senate and allow you to decide his fate come a year from this November. In ignoring the Senate, the Democrats would be putting the power of conviction and removal squarely in the hands of the most important political force in the country — the voting public.
In lieu of articles of impeachment sent to the Senate, the House could criticize the president’s actions in the condemnatory language of a “Sense of the House,” the highest form of censure available to them.
The advantage to this strategy is that the Senate is prevented from exonerating the president by refusing to convict him. He suffers, therefore, from both the damaging evidence unearthed for the public to see during the impeachment inquiry and the fact that he cannot claim to be innocent of the charges brought against him. More important, politically, Trump would enter the 2020 campaign wearing a scarlet “I” on his chest, a symbol of his being the first impeached president in history to seek re-election.
There is, of course, a huge downside to a completely partisan House voting to impeach the president. Nancy Pelosi always understood that impeachment could strengthen rather than weaken Trump with not only his base but with wavering voters who might view it as political overreach. But the release this week of the very serious and credible charges found in the whistleblower’s complaint may move more of the public to favor impeachment.
The Democrats need to strike while the iron is hot. If they are going to impeach the president they need to do it by the end of the year and then use the campaign, which kicks off in Iowa after Super Bowl Sunday, to prevent the president’s re-election. Let the voting public decide on November 3, 2020, if removing the president from office is politically necessary and appropriate.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.