A Pragmatic Plea Against Impeachment
As the scandals around President Trump’s administration continue to escalate, many Democratic lawmakers and even some republicans have brought up the issue of impeachment. The chief charge bringing up these resounding calls for impeachment is Trump’s apparent obstruction of justice (whether legally or just in spirit) regarding the FBI’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential campaign. Representative Al Green took to the House floor a couple weeks ago demanding the body file articles of impeachment against the president: “I rise today, Mr. Speaker, to call for the impeachment of the President of the United States of America, for obstruction of justice,” he said in a booming speech during the body’s “Morning Hour.”
Any specific legal charges against the president are irrelevant in this matter. The House could impeach a president because he tied his shoe in the wrong manner if they so chose—thus is the purview of a political process. However, the obstruction of justice charge has become somewhat of a baseline for presidential impeachment since Richard Nixon sought to shut down the Watergate investigation by firing the special prosecutor investigating him.
The evidence that President Trump meets this political baseline is pretty cut and dry. This has been attested by multiple intelligence officials and most famously by former FBI Director James Comey. The president attempted to interfere in the FBI’s investigation into Russia. He told Lester Holt that he was thinking of Russia as he fired James Comey. Weeks before that, he asked Comey to “let this go”—referring to the investigation into Micheal Flynn.
However, despite all of this evidence, any pragmatic desire to curtail the power of the Donald Trump presidency should be wary of impeachment.
There are two steps to the impeachment process. First, the House of Representatives presents an “article of impeachment”—which brings formal charges. This is already exceedingly difficult. Every president who has ever been impeached—three, if we count President Nixon—has faced an opposing party in the Congress, and has had ample on-the-record evidence of charges. Second, the Senate holds a trial and votes whether to remove the President. This is even more difficult—so difficult that it has never once happened in American history. Part of that reason is because two-thirds of senators must vote affirmative to remove the President—a task which in our current political climate seems beyond monumental.
If President Donald Trump were impeached without a Democratic super majority in the Senate there is almost no chance he would be removed from office; and even with that majority, there is still a chance that he would remain. Even Andrew Johnson—perhaps the president most hated by the Congress who worked alongside him—could not be removed from office through the impeachment process. He escaped removal by a single vote, even though the “radical” Republicans held the upper chamber 57-9.
An impeachment without removal would perhaps be the most politically calamitous event to ever hit Washington because we can be assured that it would do at least one thing: embolden President Trump and his supporters. The President would most surly see his own power and legitimacy blossom were he to be exonerated of political charges related to the investigation which has dogged his tenure in office. If the Senate voted to free the president from these charges, it would lift a weight that has been holding down some of the worst impulses of the Trump administration by affirming their legitimacy. The “you lost, get over it” mentality of many of the President’s supporters would reach its ultimate conclusion, as the failure to remove the President would represent the final and most dramatic loss of the administration’s critics to date. It is not hard to imagine a world in 2019 where the President’s team is proposing all measure of policy which could damage the country and are pushing back against any critics with “the Senate gave final, and complete approval to the President’s agenda.”
It is unequivocal that the President would not take an impeachment as a humbling experience; he would see it as an attack. He would see a failure to remove as a victory that legitimized everything about his administration—everything including the nepotism, conflicts of interest, failure to disclose finances, ethics violations, and degradation of American norms would be legitimized in this administration’s mind by surviving an impeachment.
This exoneration would be wholly political, as is all of the impeachment process. Any legal violations which could be uncovered by Robert Muller’s investigation or by the Senate and House committees’ investigations would still be perfectly valid. Those laws would have still been violated. But there is an increasingly relevant debate that has been taking place throughout American history over whether a sitting president can actually be prosecuted for a crime. Is the president actually “above the law”? Conventional wisdom holds that if a President is in actual violation of a U.S. Code then the proper way to litigate that is through impeachment and removal from office. Once the official is out of office then prosecutors could bring further charges in court.
This legal debate runs hard into the political realities of the impeachment proceedings. If the President were found to be in violation of an actual crime but was then not removed from office through impeachment, there would have to be a real debate about whether or not those charges still apply. Would the political exoneration extend in to legal exoneration? It cannot be stressed enough that the Senate’s trial of the president is not legal proceedings. They are political. It would be overtly wise for the Congress to consider the real possibility of a conviction or exoneration. Because in this case, the ramifications are larger than just removal or not removal.
The national trauma of a Presidential impeachment is also something this country, and more importantly this Congress, should consider. In our current climate of vast political polarization, even the mention of possible wrong doing by President Trump has turned his base into titanium. Any assertion of wrongdoing is seen as a flagrant attack by the “losers” who just want to destroy the President. Any justification of those assertions is viewed as “fake news” put out by biased media whose only goal is to tear down this administration. Likewise on the galvanized left, any thought that President Trump may not be guilty of the most cardinal sins is heresy. Anyone who dare speaks moderation is guilty of sucking up to the administration or trying to make excuses for them.
The potential explosion of political anger from the right if President Trump were impeached is something unimaginable in the current climate. The amount of fury which will come from the left when the President is most likely not removed from office would be equally explosive—if not more so. Is this country prepared to handle that kind of national trauma when the stakes could never be higher, when there are more people engaged in his debate than ever before?
The odds of President Trump being impeached any time before the end of 2018 are exceedingly low, and those odds only increase if the Democrats take back the house in large numbers. Even then the chance that the Democrats will gain a super majority in the Senate by 2018 are neigh impossible. Because of this, even if President Trump were impeached, the odds of him being removed from office are even slimmer. Critics of the current administration have to ask themselves: is the possibility of empowering the President’s worst urges, and possibly exonerating him from real crimes, worth making an extremely dramatic political point when the results of that action are suspect? If the Democrats are not one hundred percent sure that an impeachment will lead to removal, is the impeachment a wise course of action?
Although blue waves in elections from the school boards to the Senate the President’s opponents can win back the power of opposition, President Trump’s administration can be fought in other ways. Legislation can be drafted to solidify the norms that the President has broken in to law. Any legislation deemed terrible could be opposed in the Congress, the President’s executive orders could be continually resisted in the courts, and the Congress could pass real legislation which would benefit the American people. All of this could perhaps be more useful than taking up time chasing the shiny object that is impeachment—an objective which will most likely fail embolden the President, his actions, and his agenda far more than his opponents would ever be able to stop.
Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.