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A Constitutional Betrayal

Democrats may be harming their electoral chances, but Republicans are harming our system of government.
December 18, 2019
A Constitutional Betrayal
(Digital collage: Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Library of Congress)

Today, Donald Trump is expected to join a small, ignominious fraternity, becoming the third U.S. president to be impeached. This historic rebuke is richly deserved. It may also prove deeply imprudent.

The proximate cause of the sordid national drama now unfolding is not in dispute: The president sought to shake down a foreign leader for personal political favors using military aid as leverage. Perhaps you should read the preceding sentence again, lest it has already gone stale from repetition. All the rest is commentary—a disingenuous dodge orchestrated by partisans more concerned with defending their standard-bearer’s unruly appetites and passions than securing the national interest.

The sly attempts by congressional Republicans to deflect attention from this scandal by suggesting that impeachment is motivated solely by Democrats’ partisanship will only serve to remove the stigma from this manifest act of corruption in the highest public office. Such efforts are contemptible. They cannot help but poison the wells of our national life and further pollute Americans’ view of the presidency.

Although Trump has always been unfit for high public office, his defenders are nonetheless right to assert that the Framers of the Constitution considered impeachment an extraordinary remedy, to be reserved only for the gravest abuses of power. (For this reason, those Democratic voices that advocated impeaching Trump before the sun had set on his inauguration day were not merely foolish but lamentably irresponsible, as the president has reveled in pointing out.)

Trump’s defenders are wrong, however, to deny that he is guilty of an impeachable offense. And they are wrong to deny that the country would profit from his swift removal.

Here a few words from the Framers may be in order. The Constitutional Convention specifically rejected “maladministration” as a ground for removing a president, instead allowing for the president to be removed from office upon impeachment by the House for, and conviction by the Senate of, “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

The Framers knew that the historical record provided ample cause for worry about corruption in high executive office, especially involving the subversion of national interests to foreign powers. A century earlier, Louis XIV had bribed the English king, Charles II, with personal payments to relinquish a military base in France and to stay neutral in French wars on the continent. The specter of such treason for personal enrichment was a source of anxiety for the Framers.

During the ratification debates, supporters of the Constitution wanted to quell potential fears about the proposed new executive. Such immense power, vested in a single individual, was liable to be abused. They pointed to the impeachment power given to Congress as a necessary check. Some regulating body beyond the people—whose “animosities, partialities, influence, and interest,” as Hamilton declared in Federalist 65, impeded a full understanding of the common good—was required to deter and punish executive misconduct. Impeachment, Hamilton wrote, was a mechanism to protect the nation “from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

By this weighty standard, Trump deserves to be impeached and, under ideal circumstances, removed with expedition.

The trouble is, the current political circumstances are very far from ideal. Trump’s rank violation of his constitutional duty has put Congress in an invidious position. Despite being plainly guilty of unscrupulous conduct in l’affaire Ukraine, and despite posing a continuing menace to the nation’s republican institutions, the president retains the staunch, seemingly unwavering support of the Republican party. This absence of candor and courage among Republicans damages their credibility—remember, this is a party ostensibly devoted above all to constitutional principle—and harms our political discourse.

Since the scandal came to public attention, the president and his inner circle have demonstrated chronic indiscipline, compulsion, venality, deceit, and vindictiveness—all of which suggest an executive branch far removed from attending to the country’s true interests. The president’s conduct appears to be incorrigible; its exposure has not elicited an admission of guilt, let alone an offering of apology. Instead, an anxious public is treated to presidential tweets about a “perfect” call with his Ukrainian counterpart and an impending “coup” against him. Without a blush of shame, there will be no repentance, and more disgraceful and dangerous conduct yet to come.

There is no question that history will record the Trump era as a time during which the president of the United States (to recall the words of John Adams) “insidiously betray’d [and] wantonly trifled away” the public trust. It will also record how his Republican allies, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of presidential wrongdoing, simply averted their gaze, or worse, defined deviancy down, and left a dangerously unfit president in command.

The failure to acknowledge the extent of this Republican problem, however, will in turn breed an acute problem for Democrats. The Senate almost certainly will not vote to convict President Trump. And in a country where the vital bloc of independent voters is more convinced of Trump’s maladministration than of his having committed high crimes and misdemeanors, the course Democrats have chosen will have considerable costs. An unpopular and ultimately futile impeachment trial may harm Democrats’ electoral fortunes in next year’s contest against the president.

During the June 1788 convention at which Virginia ratified the Constitution, Patrick Henry, a critic of the proposed government, accused James Madison, its foremost defender, of failing to protect against corrupt or lawless politicians. “Is there no virtue among us?” Madison replied. “If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.” The disgrace convulsing the Trump administration is entirely of its own making. But our wretched situation has been bequeathed to the nation by congressional Republicans shirking their duty to a precious political system on behalf of a man who subverts it without the slightest compunction.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.