IMPEACHMENT IS NOW officially on the table when it comes to President Trump — but congressional censure may end up being the better option. No, censure wouldn’t result in Trump’s removal from office, but in all likelihood, neither will impeachment.
Censure has this advantage: Unlike impeachment, it would be much harder for congressional Republicans to duck, dodge, or sidestep to avoid condemning President Trump’s gross abuse of presidential power.
That is not to downplay Trump’s extraordinary attempt to enlist President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in an effort to generate dirt, or the illusion of dirt, on former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Or the White House’s apparent effort to cover it up.
Trump’s Nixonian effort has changed things dramatically. Most important, it has pushed Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the impeachment-inquiry threshold.
That obviously worries Trump in a major way. Pelosi is someone he respects and perhaps even fears, which puts her in a rarefied category indeed. For her part, the speaker obviously feels that an impeachment inquiry is the lever she needs to force the White House to comply with the House’s legitimate demands for information, be it through testimony of administration officials or the release of documents.
But starting an impeachment inquiry — and conducting an exhaustive investigation of Trump’s and his administration’s misdeeds — shouldn’t automatically lead to impeachment. Impeachment, after all, is a momentous step. Despite attempts to fit articles of impeachment into a legal framework, it is ultimately a political decision about what conduct justifies removing an elected president. (In this case, a president elected by an Electoral College, but not a popular vote, majority, though that doesn’t negate the larger point.) It’s a political judgment that will initially be made by Congress, but one whose conclusion will likely hinge on the sentiment of voters.
Right now, though voters disapprove of Trump, they do not favor impeachment. And one can understand why: It takes a democracy’s most important decision out of the hands of the people.
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My view is that an Electoral College majority of voters made a big mistake in electing Trump, whose large character flaws were on clear display from the day he entered the 2016 presidential contest. Thankfully, enough of the electorate has now taken enough of a measure of Trump that he seems headed toward defeat. But unless public sentiment toward impeachment changes dramatically, such an effort could change the current electoral dynamic. How? By allowing Trump to shift the focus from his many failures and scandals to the Democrats’ nonelectoral effort to expel him from office.
A second problem with impeachment: It is unlikely to succeed. To remove Trump requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate. That is, 67 senators. That means winning the support of 20 GOP senators for removing a Republican president.
If Democrats proceed with impeachment, Republican senators from deep-red states will be able to point to home-state polling and say that though they condemn what Trump did, it’s not enough of an abuse to justify overriding the electorally expressed will of the people. All the more so, they’ll argue, since voters themselves will soon have a chance to render their own verdict on Trump via the ballot box.
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Censure, however, would rob Republican congressmen of those arguments. Opposing censure couldn’t be cast as respecting the decision or prerogative of the voters.
If they voted against censure — or, in the case of senators, refused to bring it the floor for a vote — that would be tantamount to condoning Trump’s roguish behavior. That would demonstrate for everyone to see what a group of servitors and lackeys the Republican Party has become.
If the censure were approved, Trump would join Andrew Jackson as the only presidents ever censured (though the Senate’s condemnation of Jackson was later repealed).
It would affix a large red D, for disgrace, on Trump’s chest.
No, it wouldn’t result in Trump’s ouster. But that’s what elections are for. And censure would be much more likely to contribute to Trump’s 2020 defeat than would a failed impeachment effort.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.