America Flirts With Impeachment, Again

Do we really want to use impeachment because we dislike the character of a president?

In the first 185 years of the republic, the impeachment power was used only once for a president, the unsuccessful effort to remove Andrew Johnson in 1868. In the last 43 years, it was used twice. In 1974, impeachment proceedings in the House led Richard Nixon to resign, and in 1996 Bill Clinton was impeached by the House but acquitted by the Senate. Now, many seem anxious to invoke impeachment against President Trump.

Impeachment talk was perhaps first broached by Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat. Rep. Al Green (D-TX) climbed aboard, charging the president with obstruction of justice for firing FBI Director James Comey. While the Republican leadership in Congress has kept its distance from such talk, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said that impeachment is appropriate if Trump did try to stop the FBI investigation, and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) soon claimed that he was actually the first Republican to say this. Then New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggested using the 25th Amendment because Trump lacks “a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control.” Section Four of that amendment provides that the vice president and a “majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” may declare the President “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Social media and the blogosphere are thriving on such talk, with their usual lack of restraint. Cable news channels are not far behind. Liberal interest groups are salivating, seeing a way to redeem their 2016 loss.

Too few opinion and media leaders seem willing to urge caution. Rep. Adam Schiff, a ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is a rather lonely voice: “No one ought to, in my view, rush to embrace the most extraordinary remedy that involves the removal of the president from office.”

There are many reasons to exercise caution if we can take off our partisan and emotional blinders.

There are many reasons to exercise caution if we can take off our partisan and emotional blinders.

Impeachment vacates the electoral mandate of the people, our core republican principle. Sixty-three million people voted for Trump. As attractive as is to Democrats, impeachment should be a tool to restore the rule of law not to overturn an election. Democrats might also remember that impeachment, if too hasty or too partisan, can increase a president’s popularity, as it did for Clinton.

Grounds for impeachment can be hard to define. In the absence of “treason” and “bribery,” we are left with what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In practice, that has meant obstruction of justice (Nixon, Clinton), perjury (Clinton) or abuse of the powers of the office (Nixon’s effort to have the IRS go after political enemies). Johnson’s impeachment hung on failure to follow the Tenure of Office Act, which history and subsequent courts have interpreted as unconstitutional. Short of illegal action, do we really want to use impeachment because we dislike the personality or character of a president?

Impeachment is highly divisive, which would take place in an already divided nation. The country is not likely to move on easily, even if it succeeds. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson did little to heal the nation, which Lincoln wanted after the Civil War. The effort to impeach Nixon led to a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford, which further inflamed the nation ― and cost Ford the presidency in 1976.

While many see impeachment as the success of Constitutional government, we should also regard it as a sign that our republican system failed. When that system works, it produces successful, not failed leadership. We should also remember that the Clinton impeachment effort failed even though the opposition party controlled both houses of Congress, which is not the case now, and the Johnson effort failed even though his own party tried to remove him.

The use of the fourth section of the 25th Amendment is fraught with dangerous potential consequences, which may be why it has never been used. It substitutes the will of the vice president (who has an inherent conflict of interest because he would assume the duties of the president), and of appointed (unelected) officials for the will of the Congress and the people. It does not remove a president from office; it just declares him unable to discharge his duties. Should he disagree, a lengthy and bitter Constitutional conflict would follow.

Impeachment is one of many remedies the Constitution provides for a wayward presidency. Failure of Congress to authorize or appropriate, formal censure, informal private and public pressure, and contravening decisions by the courts are alternatives. Their use, of course, requires political courage ― but presumably less so than impeachment.

Impeachment may be exciting and for some emotionally gratifying. It may ultimately be necessary. But we should harbor no illusions. It would be the biggest ― and longest ― of national distractions from the work the government needs to do. Action on nearly every major issue, and our ability to lead on the world stage would be delayed at best and dropped at worst as we, once again, are drawn closer to the rocks by the sirens of impeachment.