There is pressure, especially from some newly elected Democrats in the House of Representatives, for impeaching President Trump. This is being opposed by more cautious House leaders and especially by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who fear that an impeachment effort would simply energize Trump supporters and restore flagging support for him among Republicans as we head into the next presidential election cycle.
I would argue, as I did in 2006 in the book I wrote along with Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Barbara Olshansky (The Case for Impeachment, St. Martins Press) which laid out the high crimes and misdemeanors of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, that even if there is no chance of a Senate conviction or even a Senate trial, it is critically important, when such crimes against law and Constitution are committed, to call presidents to account by airing the charges, calling witnesses, and voting on specific articles of impeachment in a duly impaneled Impeachment Committee hearing in the House of Representatives. (For the record I also called for Obama’s impeachment for war crimes and other crimes too, but was unable to find a publisher — or an agent — willing to try and contract that book.)
And Trump’s impeachable crimes, after less than two years in office, are legion, including: launching wars in Syria and Yemen in violation of international law and without Congressional authorization, asserting the power to cancel approved treaties by falsely claiming a national emergency, violating the Constitution’s Emolument’s Clause by personally profiting from his office, appointing an attorney general without Senate approval, obstructing justice, lying to the American people (repeatedly!), conspiracy to conceal crimes, advocating violence and undermining equal protection under the law, abuse of presidential pardon power, undermining press freedom, imprisoning children and violation of campaign finance laws
It’s certainly true that if and when the House has a bill submitted by some member or group of members of the House, laying out proposed articles of impeachment against President Trump for these and other crimes and calling for a formal impeachment hearing, there will be loud screams of opposition from Republicans in House and Senate. They, and the pundits on Fox TV and talk radio will accuse the Democrats of grandstanding, of attempting to undo the results of the 2016 election and of trying to tie up Congress in interminable hearings.
All that is inevitable.
But once the House Judiciary Committee, a sober body composed of members from both parties, is constituted as an Impeachment Panel and begins hearings, calling and subpoenaing witnesses to make the case for various articles of impeachment — a process which, as we have seen in impeachments of President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton, will be televised live and watched by much of the nation, ensures that the truth will out. The American public will get to see and hear the unfiltered testimony of witnesses and will be able to make up their own minds. This will happen even though there will certainly be spin doctors in the various media trying to amplify the crimes or to minimize them.
There is no way of predicting at this point what the public view of Trump’s crimes and abuses of power will be as such a process unfolds, but the odds are, when the evidence is presented in such a public forum, many minds will be swayed.
More importantly, whether or not a Trump impeachment panel ends up approving one or more articles of impeachment, and whether or not any members of the minority party on that panel end up supporting impeachment, as Republicans did in the case of the impeachment of Richard Nixon on three articles, and as a handful of Democrats did against Bill Clinton on two articles — and I predict that even in this highly polarized time, by the end of any impeachment hearing into Donald Trump’s many crimes against the Constitution there will be at least a Republican or two who will join in voting for at least one article of impeachment — the historical record will have been established that this has been a presidency deeply stained by moral failure, abuse of power and disrespect for the Constitution.
That alone would be worth the effort, even if a feckless Republican Senate simply refused to convene a trial to try the President on the charges — a dereliction of duty that would probably damage the Republican Party.
In the beginning, few expected that President Nixon would be impeached by the House, but by the end of those hearings, he was charged by Democratic and Republican members of the Impeachment Committee with abuse of power, lying to the American people, obstruction of justice and contempt of Congress. Few expected President Clinton to be impeached when his impeachment hearing began either, but after all the testimony, he ended up being nailed on two articles with some Democratic support, for lying under oath and for obstruction of justice. While Clinton was not convicted at a Senate trial, and while the public appears to have concluded that the charges against him, all related to his extra-marital sexual escapades, were too minor to justify removal from office, he was damaged goods ever after and probably a better, or at least more cautious, president in his final years for it.
I firmly believe that Rep. Pelosi, who was also Speaker of the House in 2006-8 during the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency, made a terrible mistake in barring any impeachment hearing on 35 articles of impeachment that were filed in a bill drawn up by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (R-OH) and Robert Wexler (D-FL). Fearing that an impeachment hearing would end up boosting support for Republicans in the 2006 off-year congressional election, and later in the next presidential election, said in the spring of 2006 that “impeachment is off the table.” Despite mounting evidence of Bush’s (and Cheney’s) crimes, she stuck to that position.
But unlike in Clinton’s case, Bush’s crimes against the Constitution were serious and legion. The Kucinich/Wexler impeachment bill included well laid-out allegations of illegally and dishonestly creating a case for war against Iraq, exposing the identity of a CIA Agent (Valerie Plame), warrantless spying by the National Security Agency on American citizens (doesn’t that charge seem quaint today?), failing to comply with Congressional subpoenas, tampering with the 2004 election, misleading Congress and the American people in an effort to destroy Medicare, and obstructing an investigation into the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All of these were grave crimes, and had they gone to a formal hearing by a House Impeachment Committee in 2008, whether approved as impeachment articles by the committee or not, the ensuing hearing would have surely had a huge impact on the ability of the next president, Barack Obama, to continue, as he did, the violations of privacy by the NSA and FBI that have now become the norm. (Obama should have been impeached if only for refusing to prosecute the crimes of Bush and Cheney, famously saying, “We need to look forward, not backward.”) An impeachment hearing would have also put a damper on the growing trend of presidents to launch wars without Congressional approval — a horrific crime which has now become normative (as witness Trump’s launching of illegal missile attacks in Syria and murderous armed attacks in Yemen, and his illegal threats to launch nuclear attacks on Iran and North Korea). Perhaps had Bush been impeached for Iraq, Obama would not have invaded and destroyed Libya, a disaster that continues to this day, or sent troops to interfere in Syria, another ongoing disaster.
Perhaps had Obama been impeached for those crimes, Trump wouldn’t have launched his Syrian and Yemen attacks.
Pelosi seems inclined to make the same terrible mistake again with President Trump. She should not be allowed to.
The ongoing failure of Congress, since the failed 1998-99 effort to impeach Clinton, to hold presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump accountable for abuse of power, for lying to the American people, and for ignoring Congress, has had a devastating impact on the growth of presidential power and over-reach. It’s past time to turn the dial back with a reassertion of Congressional authority. The best way to do that is to start subjecting presidents who abuse their power to public impeachment hearings. That process should begin with the impeachment of President Trump.
The author is also co-author with Barbara Olshansky of “The Case for Impeachment: The legal argument for Removing George W. Bush from office’ (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)