Saturday, November 18, 2017

Impeaching Trump: Here's the Beef

      Donald Trump marked a historic milestone this week when he became the first president to be confronted with a resolution calling for his impeachment and removal from office within his first year in the White House.
      The 25-page resolution  introduced on Wednesday [Nov. 15] by six Democratic members of the House of Representatives lays out five articles of impeachment that recite familiar stories relying for the most part on undisputed facts. Trump is charged with obstructing justice — most specifically, by firing FBI director James Comey to try to thwart the Russia investigation. He is also accused of violating the Constitution's foreign and domestic emoluments clauses and with undermining the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press.
      As to each of the counts, the resolution lays out a strong case that the president, quoting now, "has undermined the integrity of his office, brought disrepute on the Presidency, and betrayed his trust as President in a manner subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States." With the issues so familiar, the resolution's sponsors rightly view impeachment as the only means for ending what the lead sponsor, Tennessee's Steve Cohen, in a press release calls Trump's "reckless and harmful behavior" in office.
      By historical standards, the resolution is as dense and detailed as the only successful impeachment resolution to date: the three articles adopted with bipartisan support by the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974. The committee's action, combined with the Supreme Court's decision in the Watergate tapes case, forced Richard M. Nixon to resign the presidency within a matter of days to avoid all-but-certain conviction and removal.
      By contrast, the Trump impeachment resolution is far more detailed than the impeachment measures brought, unsuccessfully, against Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. The Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict Johnson on charges of violating the Tenure in Office Act by removing Edwin Stanton as secretary of war. The Senate fell short of a simple majority on the two counts against Clinton: 45-55 on perjury for lying to a federal grand jury and 50-50 on the related obstruction of justice count.
      Impeachment is a powerful weapon, so it is probably good that it has been wielded against the president infrequently and successfully only in Nixon's case. History has long approved of Johnson's acquittal: his removal for firing a member of his own cabinet would have gutted the president's authority over the executive branch. Decades from now, history is also likely to judge that the Clinton impeachment was more a partisan power grab than a principled effort to punish presidential misconduct.
      Six other presidents have been the targets of impeachment resolutions, according to a detailed report by the Congressional Research Service. John Tyler became the first impeachment target, two years into his presidency in 1843, for exercising the president's constitutional power to veto a bill passed by Congress; the House rejected the resolution. None of the others was brought to the House floor.
      Three presidents faced possible impeachment on their way out of the White House. Grover Cleveland faced a miscellany of politically charged accusations in an unsuccessful resolution introduced in the final year of his second term. Herbert Hoover similarly faced a mishmash of politically motivated accusations in December 1932 after he had been defeated for re-election. In a more recent instance, Harry Truman faced impeachment in his final year in office for seizing the shut down steel mills to keep them operating during the Korean War.
      Two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, were accused in unsuccessful impeachment resolutions of exceeding presidential powers by launching overseas wars: Reagan's invasion of Grenada in 1983 and Bush's Desert Storm war in Kuwait in 1991. Reagan also survived a second-term impeachment attempt over the Iran-contra affair.
      Those efforts, just like the one against Trump, arose from partisan disagreements whatever their underlying substance. In Trump's case, the accusations stand of their own weight despite their partisan motivations; the president and his supporters have little by way of defense except to rely on immunity supposedly created by winning election.
      Trump himself admitted, belatedly, that he fired Comey to thwart the Russia investigation. That may not be obstruction for criminal law purposes, but qualifies in an impeachment trial. He has clearly violated the Foreign Emoluments Clause from the patronage of foreign governments at Trump properties, including the Trump Hotel in Washington, and from regulatory benefits extended to Trump businesses in many countries — China, most recently. As for the Domestic Emoluments Clause, the White House itself is paying Trump properties for all the days that the president has spent at Mar-a-Lago, among others.
      Trump is accused of undermining the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law by his race-based campaign-time criticism of the federal judge overseeing the civil suit against Trump University, his White House criticism of the judges handling the Muslim travel ban cases, and his pardoning of Arizona's contempt-of-court sheriff Joe Arpaio.
      As for freedom of the press, Trump commended a literal "beat the press" policy to his supporters during the campaign and has kept up his "Fake News" drumbeat in the White House. The specifics cited make clear that Trump's efforts to undermine the press go far beyond the ordinary, to-be-expected adversary relationship between the White House and the press.

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