Should Democrats be calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump?
YES, for two reasons: First, impeachment is the right thing to do. Second, it is the politically smart thing to do.
Impeachment is the right thing to do because the Trump presidency is a cancer on American politics and society. Trump’s very occupation of the highest, most respected office in the land legitimates attitudes and behaviors that undermine democracy and promote racial and ethnic distrust and hatred. His personality disorders also make him unfit to wield the awesome powers of the presidency—most notably, the powers of nuclear weapons.
Now, you might agree that all of this provides ample reason to want to dump Trump, but we do have a Constitution that specifies the conditions under which a president can be removed from office. You can reasonably argue that those conditions have not been met. This is essentially the argument put forward by legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who worries about the temptation to criminalize political differences. Politically outrageous behavior should be punished politically, at the ballot box, rather than through the quasi-judicial process of impeachment.
Dershowitz is wrong. First, even on the narrowest constitutional grounds, Trump is impeachable: as long as he remains invested in his multiple global businesses, he is in continuous violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits a president from accepting payments from foreign powers. No one can pretend that Trump’s income producing properties—starting with his hotel in the heart of Washington DC—don’t benefit from his occupation of the White House.
More broadly, Dershowitz’s reading of the Constitution is unduly constricted. The constitution says that a president may be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” without defining what those are. A common belief, which Dershowitz evidently shares, is that offenses to be impeachable must be violations of the criminal code. But Vox’s Ezra Klein reports on a wide range of constitutional scholars who agree that impeachable offenses are not limited to such infractions. The founding fathers, it seems quite clear, believed that gross violations of the public trust would constitute grounds for impeachment.
What constitutes a violation of the public trust? We generally expect and trust a President of the United States to defend and promote basic norms and institutions of democracy, including beliefs in a free press, an independent judicial system and racial, religious and political toleration. We expect and trust a president to behave more like a normal adult than like an angry, troubled adolescent. We expect and trust the president to conduct a judicious foreign policy. And, while it’s not normally a crime to tell a lie, we do expect and trust a president not to be an habitual liar. It is a political judgment to say that Trump fails on all these counts, but we need to recognize impeachment as a political—not a judicial—remedy that may sometimes need to be employed for political abuses. In an excellent essay that I urge everyone to read, Klein argues against the “profoundly reckless” view that a US president can only be removed for demonstrable criminality or mental incompetence:
Sometimes I imagine this era going catastrophically wrong — a nuclear exchange with North Korea, perhaps, or a genuine crisis in American democracy — and historians writing about it in the future. They will go back and read Trump’s tweets and his words and read what we were saying, and they will wonder what the hell was wrong with us. You knew, they’ll say. You knew everything you needed to know to stop this. And what will we say in response?
…We have made the presidency too powerful to leave the holder of the office functionally unaccountable for four years. We have created a political culture in which firing our national executive is viewed as a crisis rather than as a difficult but occasionally necessary act. And we have done this even though we recognize that the consequences of leaving the wrong president in power can include horrors beyond imagination….”
It may be objected that Trump’s replacement, Mike Pence, would be no better and in some ways even worse. Pence would probably be more effective than Trump in pushing the GOP’s radical agenda through Congress. True enough, but the reality is that Trump is dangerous in ways that Pence is not. Trump is a genuinely charismatic demagogue who brings out the worst in the American people. Pence is a boring, run-of-the mill reactionary Republican. He cannot, would not, have the same corrosive effect on American politics and society that Trump exerts every day. And I would be less worried with Pence in charge of our nuclear arsenal.
So, impeaching Trump is the right thing to do. But in politics the right thing isn’t always the smart thing. Does it make political sense to call for impeachment? Here’s one datum that says that it does: in the latest poll, a record high 49% of voters supported impeaching Trump, compared to 41% who opposed. This was the sixth month in a row that a plurality has supported impeachment. It is reasonable to predict that impeachment support will increase as more Mueller revelations emerge. And here are some more results from the same poll: By a 54/40 margin voters wish Barack Obama were still President instead of Trump, and by a 48/42 spread they wish Hillary Clinton were in the White House rather than Trump. 56% think that Trump is not honest, compared to 37% who (incredibly!) think that he is. So, the American public clearly would like to get rid of Trump, and impeachment is increasingly viewed as an acceptable way to do it. Why wait for 2020?
That’s not to say that the chances are very good for a successful drive to remove Trump from office. It would require not only that the Democrats re-take the House of Representatives in 2018, which now does seem like a real possibility. It would also require that more than one-third of Republicans senators join all the Democrats to form the 2/3 majority required to convict an impeached president. That combination of circumstances is conceivable only if the Mueller investigation turned up truly clamorous revelations directly implicating Trump; or, alternatively, if Trump’s deteriorating mental state prompted inarguably crazy and dangerous behavior in foreign policy. These are both possible, but not very likely.
But even if the ultimate objective of removal from office is unattainable, that doesn’t mean that the effort wouldn’t be worthwhile. The call for impeachment would serve Democrats in building their case against Republicans in the 2018 elections and against Trump in 2020. It would say what needs to be said, repeatedly, every day– that Trump is utterly unfit to be president of the United States. But don’t expect Republicans to start that conversation; it has to come first from the Democrats.