Impeachment isn’t just about the presidency of Donald Trump. It’s about the role of Congress in our republic.
Many Congressional Democrats want to see a narrow, specific bill of impeachment — just three or so articles focusing on Trump’s illegal efforts to enlist the government of Ukraine in his 2020 re-election effort. It’s easy. It’s fast. And it’s something that can be explained to the public in a relatively straightforward manner.
It’s also wrong-headed. Rather than narrow the scope of their indictment of Trump’s presidency, the House Judiciary Committee should present to the full House of Representatives a long list of Trump’s transgressions against our form of governing. His insults of Congress and the judiciary, his repeated failures to fulfill his oath, along with his efforts to usurp the power of sovereign states and impose his will over the lives of individuals.
Impeachment is a political act so Congress should break out of the mindset that it must focus only on clearly criminal individual acts. Congress is not a prosecutor’s office; it’s the most powerful legislative body in the history of the world. Endless hearings and evidence are not crucial. “High crimes and misdemeanors” are what Congress says they are. And Trump’s crimes are there in plain sight.
Limiting the articles of impeachment to just the Ukraine matter will signal to all future presidents that Trump’s other unconstitutional and un-presidential actions are OK. Presidents acquire power incrementally, one unchecked action at a time. Over the decades, Congress has relinquished to the executive branch so many of its powers that, before Trump, the president as the principal embodiment of the government was already a fact. Now we are witnessing the end game of the Imperial Presidency, not as played by Augustus but by Caligula.
The writing of the impeachment bill of particulars gives Congress the opportunity for a great, bold re-statement of the republican principles underlying the Constitution and a re-affirmation of the Founders’ clear belief in the primacy of Congress in the structure of the government. The House can use the articles of impeachment to proscribe conduct befitting the presidency and to make clear to this president and, more importantly, to all future presidents what conduct is unacceptable.
A long list may win more support in the House than a short one. Republicans and wavering Democrats may feel the Ukraine matter has sufficient ambiguities that they can resist supporting impeachment. If the House votes with the intention of limiting the actions of future presidents, however, a list of transgressions reaching back to the 2016 campaign would provide sufficient cover for even some of Trump’s most ardent supporters to vote for some of the articles. We won’t see 435 votes in favor of any article, but some might garner 300 or more votes, a strong statement of Congressional resolve.
While there are plenty of Republican representatives who would support Trump if he did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, there are other more independent representatives who, within a wide array of charges, may find some that they feel they can support, especially if they feel that the Republicans in the Senate will save Trump’s presidency.
An article that says, for example, “He has indiscreetly and without counsel or forethought, endangered the security of the nation by releasing secret information that reveals the sources and methods by which the United States conducts its clandestine foreign affairs” would be fairly easy for any independently-minded representative to support. There is no argument that Trump didn’t reveal secrets, only his assertion that because he’s the president he can. A yes vote on such an article says his action and his judgment are both unworthy of the presidency, and his “because I can” assertion is prima faciean abuse of power.
So in order to support the article, any wavering Democrat or persuadable Republican need only ask of him- or herself: “Do I want a future president doing this?”
Congress asserts its power
The same argument will hold with the Senate, where, at this moment, there is virtually no chance that any article will win 67 votes. Democrats should be doing everything they can to expand the rift that’s already opened with Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) defense of the whistleblower and try to get more Senate Republicans on board, couching impeachment as Congressional assertion of its power and proper role in the government.
A broadly written bill of impeachment cataloging Trump’s unconstitutional transgressions will win some, perhaps quite a few, Republican votes. Ukraine? Easy to vote against. Trump’s wholesale disregard for the Constitution? Less easy. A redline for all future presidents? Much, much harder.
This impeachment is bigger than Donald Trump. It’s about what kind of government we will have in the future. At the writing of the Constitution, when it was understood that the presidency was being designed for George Washington, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin noted, “The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.”
Well, now we do. We’ve had nincompoops and scalawags, statesmen and visionaries. We’ve had a few great presidents, some good ones, plenty of mediocre ones and a few really bad ones. But we have never had a Donald Trump.
It is up to Congress to decide: Will he be the last utterly unworthy president? Or the first?