What Makes An Impeachable Offense?

In the end, the public will determine Trump’s fate.

The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

— U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 4

The Constitution’s instructions on impeachment are curiously simple and vague [for a reason!?]. To the, presumably well-understood, offenses of treason and bribery, the text adds, “high crimes and misdemeanors” as grounds for impeachment. Any definitions, and indeed, the whole process of impeachment itself, are left to the House of Representatives – the sole holder of ‘impeachment’ authority.

The Senate – after conducting a trial based on the House’s Articles of Impeachment– votes up or down on the House’s Articles, all or some. But, the Senate cannot introduce articles on its own

Impeachment, then, is obviously more a political process than a criminal one.

Trump famously suggested, while running for President, that he could shoot a person dead on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single voter. Indeed, it appears that he thinks he could do so NOW and likely still would not be convicted today, even if impeached!

Considering our country’s limited experience on this subject, perhaps we should not be surprised at this situation. Bill Clinton’s ‘crimes’ were related to a sexual relationship with a White House intern. The House voted to impeach him shortly after the 1998 midterm elections, in which most of the public expressed little interest in the subject; the Senate acquittal quickly followed.

Andrew Johnson’s ‘crime’ related to a partisan difference of opinion about an appointment. In that case the House impeached and the Senate, by a single vote, acquitted.

Richard Nixon’s crimes were uncovered outside of the House’s impeachment process – largely by the media and the Senate Watergate Committee.  Nixon, seeing the writing on the wall as Republicans abandoned him after release of his White House tapes, resigned before the House voted on articles of impeachment.

Thus, in its entire 240+ years, our nation has witnessed two impeachments, no convictions, and one resignation in advance of a virtually certain impeachment and conviction. All of which leaves us with very little to go on into what might/should constitute the level of an impeachable offense.

It used to be believed that an “impeachable offense” was simply whatever the House found it to be. Now, it is becoming clear that the standard is whatever the PUBLIC thinks it should be. At this very moment, the public appears evenly divided on the question, largely along partisan lines (with independents reflecting the overall average). That suggests to many people now that with the election only a year away, impeachment perhaps now should be moot and left to the voters next year.

The House majority seems to feel strongly – along partisan lines — that considering the facts known at the moment, they still have a solemn duty to address the question and have now voted to proceed with their investigation into Articles of Impeachment.

According to today’s facts, impeachment will not result in conviction and removal unless and until a lot more independents and, more important, Republicans, begin to support the idea. If enough [?] abandon Trump, the resulting threat to continuing its majority might encourage enough Senate Republicans to do the same.

That won’t be easy. There is an increasing push among Republicans to simply concede the “substance” of Trump’s actions and assert that it still does not rise to the level warranting removal from office.

Perhaps the country needs to better understand the significance of Trump’s acts. Public hearings will help in that regard, with the televised testimony of obviously honorable people providing a counterweight to Republican dismissals of facts as well as efforts to stain the integrity of the witnesses to Trump’s corruption. 

And, any efforts to focus on the substance of Trump’s actions still fall into hard-to-explain (or relate to) aspects of Congressional appropriations, international diplomacy, and obscure right-wing conspiracy theories about foreign interference in the 2016 election. All of those are subjects which make ordinary peoples’ eyes glaze over in a stupor of disinterest. [Boring–Dad -boring was the mantra I heard, for example,  from my 15 year old son in 1978, as I answered his questions about what I did in the Commerce Department!}!! May be to him BUT challenging to me!

Here are some more down to earth ways to think about – and more important, talk about — Trump’s actions:

  • Worse than anything Nixon did. Watergate was, at its roots admittedly with hindsight, a modest infraction: a dirty tricks operation to enhance the President’s reelection prospects. There were other crimes along the way, to be sure, but it was the cover-up that ultimately did Nixon in. People today may not know the intricacies of Nixon’s many crimes, but there was widespread understanding that he was a corrupt and malign President who deserved to be run out of office. Remember Bob Dole’s famous comparison of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Nixon? “See no evil, hear no evil – and evil.” That Nixon was bad might be the only political statement that still has a broad consensus in American society.  Putting Trump’s crimes in Nixonian terms should make them easier to grasp and emphasizes their severity.

  • What is he hiding? This boils down to a simple talking point: if he’s so innocent, why is he refusing to cooperate? Under the law, someone refusing legal orders to produce information may be presumed to be hiding something that would indicate his guilt. Trump must be guilty of something, or he would be more forthcoming. Trump was eager to share the ‘non-transcript’ of his July 25 call to the Ukrainian President, but now he’s stonewalling the real transcript. Why? As all TV commentators make clear, it is because there is something he doesn’t want you to know.

  • No person is above the law. Even the most red-blooded patriots of Trump’s vaunted base fervently believe this this point is basic to democracy. Trump, however, acts like he’s a king. In his view, he doesn’t have to follow any law or submit to any authority if he, in his “great and unmatched wisdom” [his words], deems the reason for such effrontery somehow illegitimate. – They are all totally illegitimate in his head.

Polling support for not only an impeachment inquiry, but removing Trump from office, has grown dramatically even though in recent weeks, America learned from Trump about his “perfect” call with the President of Ukraine. There is an inconsistency there that needs to be explored?

But the tipping point will never arrive unless and until a clear majority of independents, and a significant minority of Trump’s base, come to recognize that Trump has played them and the whole world for suckers.


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