Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Censure Makes No Sense

It didn’t work as a political compromise during the Clinton impeachment, and it doesn’t work today.
December 5, 2019
Censure Makes No Sense
Demonstrators Hold "Honk for Impeachment" Signs Outside the White House by Franklin McMahon (Photo by �� Franklin McMahon/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

When President Bill Clinton faced impeachment in 1998, his supporters in Congress warned about the dire consequences of overturning a democratic election. Some of them called the impeachment a coup, and changed the subject to transgressions by Republicans. (One Clinton supporter, Rep. Jerry Nadler—who now oversees the impeachment of President Trump as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—hit all of these talking points in one speech.)

Instead of impeachment, these Clinton backers implored, there should be a compromise measure. “There is a consensus that some form of censure is warranted and merited,” Sen. Chris Dodd argued. “We ought to get to that result sooner rather than later.”

Then, as now, the members of the party leading the impeachment effort in the House knew they didn’t have the votes to convict in the Senate. The censure compromise was an effort by the president’s defenders to end the impeachment process early. It failed in 1998 because Republicans were determined to demonstrate their fidelity to the rule of law and to enforce a high standard of conduct for public officials. (Okay, stop laughing.)

Democrats today find themselves in a similar position. As President Trump and his supporters accuse Democrats of a partisan, deep-state coup, Rep. Nadler has framed the impeachment process as a necessity born of principle. “Today’s hearing is entitled ‘Presidential Obstruction of Justice and Abuse of Power,’” he declared in September. “We intend to secure accountability for any wrongdoing. Because no one is above the law—not even the President of the United States.”

At this point, Trump’s defenders should be suggesting a censure measure as a possible compromise just as Democrats did in 1998. Republicans can’t defeat impeachment outright, because they have a minority in the House and because a plurality of Americans support impeachment. And while it’s virtually impossible that the required two-thirds of the Senate will vote to remove President Trump from office, it’s plausible that a bipartisan majority of the Senate will so vote—perhaps leaving Trump damaged in the run-up to the 2020 election, which Republicans want dearly to avoid.

Even if a compromise on censure appears unreachable, the Republicans should make the offer on the off chance that it works. Maybe there are enough red-state Democrats eager to avoid voting on impeachment to convince the Democratic leadership to take the deal, but Republicans will never know unless they try.

One reason they’re not trying is that President Trump himself has effectively vetoed that course of action:

More recently, the president has reportedly “told friends that he is eager to see Senate Republicans aggressively argue that he did nothing wrong.”

Censuring the president would, of course, require admitting that he did something wrong. In fact, that’s pretty much the entire point.

But more importantly, a censure measure doesn’t carry any of the upside that a vote against the president in a Senate trial would.

Some Senate Republicans—perhaps most—would prefer a Republican party that didn’t have President Trump as its standard bearer. They made this clear during the 2016 primaries, when only one sitting senator (Jeff Sessions) and a dozen sitting House members endorsed Trump. While he may still be a favorite for reelection, he’s an electoral anchor on the rest of the GOP. Republicans senators who face reelection in three or five years will probably fare better with a de-Trumpified Republican party than the current one.

That’s why there’s still a (small) chance of a jailbreak among Senate Republicans. As information about the Ukraine scandal continues to trickle out—“Ukraine Knew of Aid Freeze in July, Says Ex-Top Official in Kyiv”; “Trump’s big, ‘exonerating’ piece of Ukraine evidence takes a hit”; “Trump news: Impeachment poll reveals soaring public support for president’s removal during TV hearings, as damning Ukraine scandal details emerge”—Senate Republicans may decide that the short-term pain of turning on President Trump is preferable to the long, agonizing decline of their party.

But with censure, they would get the worst of both worlds. They would have to face the Trumpian base for failing to defend the president, yet their sacrifice would do nothing to restore the Republican party’s electoral competitiveness.

There will be no compromise. As usual.

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.