There’s a Better Way Than Impeachment

How Democrats can respond to Trump’s wrongdoing without overreacting.

This controversy is really two disputes. One is legal and procedural, regarding the executive branch’s decision to withhold the whistleblower’s complaint from Congress. The other dispute is substantive and perhaps constitutional, over the propriety of what Mr. Trump has all but admitted he discussed with the Ukrainian president.

Is Trump’s Ukraine Call an Impeachable Offense?
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As to the first dispute, Robert Litt, who served as General Counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the Obama administration, has lucidly laid out the legal complexities. In an article for Lawfare, he concludes that “the argument that the law did not require the DNI to transmit the [whistleblower’s] complaint to Congress . . . is not a frivolous one.” Moreover, if the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the president’s actions weren’t matters of urgent concern as defined in the federal law for intelligence whistleblowers, the DNI might well feel bound to block the transmission of the complaint.

Mr. Litt points out that the intelligence community’s inspector general also sought permission to transmit the complaint to congressional intelligence committees for reasons unrelated to the whistleblower law, and was told that executive privilege would preclude this action. Starting with George Washington, there is a long tradition of presidents declining to reveal the contents of their communications with foreign leaders. Here, as in so many instances, President Trump has violated the norms that sustain our constitutional order while adhering to the forms.

I confess that when I heard the first reports about Mr. Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader, it struck me as a scene from a mob movie: Nice little country you have here, Mr. Zelensky. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it. But as former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti has argued, the president’s conduct doesn’t fit comfortably within statutory definitions of bribery or extortion. Besides, presidents often use levers of power, including foreign assistance, to induce other leaders to act in ways they might prefer not to.

The real offense is distorting U.S. foreign policy to improve Mr. Trump’s re-election chances, which he and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, appear to have done. If so, this would violate the spirit of the oath Mr. Trump swore when he assumed the presidency. Because the courts offer no prospect of remedy, many representatives believe that impeachment is the only recourse, and also their duty. Speaker Pelosi’s announcement is the first step down this road.

Although I respect their motives, I disagree: Impeachment is a constitutional option, not a constitutional obligation. It is, in the broadest sense, a political act, and therefore is subject to political tests of feasibility and efficacy.

There is no evidence that impeaching the president would lead to his removal from office, which would require the consent of 20 Republican senators. (As this article went to press, exactly one— Mitt Romney of Utah—had expressed strong concern about the president’s conduct in the Ukrainian controversy.) Nor is there any evidence that impeaching the president would increase Democrats’ odds of defeating him in the election. Judging by public opinion, the reverse seems more likely.

On the other hand, inaction isn’t an option because it would have the effect of normalizing presidential conduct that is anything but normal—and accepting the unacceptable as a fait accompli. This presents a dilemma for Democrats, many of whom believe that there are only two paths—impeaching the president or doing nothing.

Fortunately for them and for the country, there is a third choice, provided by law: a resolution formally censuring the president. There is precedent. In 1834 the Senate censured President Andrew Jackson for withholding documents related to his defunding the Bank of the United States, one of the most hotly disputed decisions of his presidency.

The House should use the impeachment inquiry to develop the factual basis for a comprehensive bill of particulars against President Trump—an enumeration of his most egregious affronts to the spirit of the laws and the Constitution, and to the honor and dignity of the office he holds. They should pass this bill as a formal motion of censure. And then the Democrats should take their case to the ultimate judges in our republic, the people themselves, for a final decision in November 2020. The Senate will not remove the president from office; only the people can.

If inaction is dishonorable and impeachment futile, censure is the only course that makes both moral and political sense.

Mueller’s Exit and an Impeachment Alternative

Trying to overturn an election would be too divisive. Congress should censure Trump instead.

If Justice Department guidelines had been otherwise—if federal charges could be brought against a sitting president—would Mr. Mueller have recommended them? That’s the question. Instead we get “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Oh.

Independent counsel Ken Starr wasn’t so shy with Bill Clinton: His 1998 report outlined to Congress 11 possible grounds for impeachment.

I’m sure Mr. Mueller was trying to demonstrate probity. But it looked to me like a loss of nerve. You can have probity plus clarity, and clarity was what was needed.

The spirit of impeachment is now given a boost.

It is still a terrible idea.

It is a grave matter to overturn an election result. Why more cuttingly divide an already divided country? There is no argument that impeachment would enhance America’s position in the world, and no reason to believe it would not have some negative impact on the economy, meaning jobs. The presidential election is in 2020. What is gained from devoting the coming year to an effort that will fail in the Senate? There’s no reason to believe the public is for it. It won’t move the needle—those who like President Trump, like him; those who do not, do not; everyone already knows what they think. For Democrats it could backfire, alienating moderates and rousing those of the president’s supporters who care little for him personally but appreciate his policy achievements, such as his appointment of judges. Why rouse their wrath? If Mr. Trump is acquitted he will pose as the innocent but unstoppable victor over a witch hunt led by a liberal elite.

At this point, could Democrats even do it? Impeachment is “a heavy lift,” as Chris Matthews said on MSNBC the other day. It takes time and focus to organize it politically and legally, to get the committee chairmen on board and investigators mobilized.

House GOP Removes Steve King From Panels Following Comments on White Supremacy

Steve King was stripped of his committee assignments by fellow Republicans for questioning what was wrong with white supremacy in the U.S., and House Democrats took steps to admonish him.

House Republican leaders made the decision Monday night. He had previously sat on the Judiciary panel and Agriculture Committee, an important position for an Iowan.

Mr. King said his words were taken out of context in a newspaper interview, and argued that he was defending western civilization and not white supremacy or nationalism.

“Leader McCarthy’s decision to remove me from committees is a political decision that ignores the truth,” Mr. King said in a statement.

In an article published last week, the New York Times reported Mr. King said in an interview that he supports legal immigrants who fully assimilate to “ ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.”

White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Mr. King said in the newspaper interview. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

Two resolutions introduced separately by Democratic Reps. Bobby Rush of Illinois and Tim Ryan of Ohio would censure the lawmaker for the comments he made in the recent interview questioning why “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” are considered offensive. Mr. Rush’s resolution would censure Mr. King for previous comments as well.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Democratic leadership decided Monday night to move forward with a resolution by Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.) that would formally disapprove of Mr. King’s comments, but at a lower level than censure. The vote is likely Tuesday, a Democratic leadership aide said.

If one of the censure resolutions is passed by a simple majority, Mr. King would be forced to present himself at the front of the House Chamber for the pronouncement of the censure, which would be read out loud by Mrs. Pelosi.

Mr. King has a long history of criticizing immigrants and supporting white supremacists. His latest comments come as the new Democratic majority is focused on President Trump’s comments about immigrants.

“It’s perpetuating this division in the country that we don’t need,” said Mr. Ryan. “We need to start healing our country. He’s done it enough times, in enough places, that I feel like it rises to the level of the House having to address it.

Mr. King was re-elected in November to a ninth term in his toughest fight in his stronghold Republican district, after top donors dropped him and Democrats put up a formidable opponent. He has already drawn a 2020 primary challenger, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, who cited Mr. King’s “caustic nature” as a reason for his run.

Twenty-three members of the House have been censured for various forms of misconduct, including for using insulting language on the floor, assaulting other members and financial improprieties. No lawmaker has been censured for comments made to a newspaper.

Pelosi says there is ‘interest’ in House in acting against Rep. Steve King

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday left open the possibility of House action to punish Rep. Steve King over his history of inflammatory remarks as the Iowa Republican’s recent defense of white nationalism created a firestorm.

King, who won a ninth term in Congress in November, lamented in an interview with the New York Times that the term had become a pejorative one.

White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King said in the interview, which was published Thursday.

King later issued a statement and addressed the issue in a speech on the House floor Friday in which he sought to walk back his remarks. He said he rejects “those labels and the evil ideology that they define” and proclaimed himself “simply a Nationalist.”

A number of Democrats are calling on House leaders to consider a resolution to censure King, a vote that would put Republicans on record.

.. King’s interview prompted a rebuke from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican in the House, who said in a tweet Thursday morning, “These comments are abhorrent and racist and should have no place in our national discourse.”

She was soon followed by House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who told reporters in a pen-and-pad that it was “offensive to try to legitimize those terms.” But Scalise also praised King’s later statement.

“I think it was important that he rejected that kind of evil, because that’s what it is. It’s evil ideology,” Scalise said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also issued a statement Thursday evening in which he sharply criticized King’s comments to the Times.

“Everything about white supremacy and white nationalism goes against who we are as a nation,” McCarthy said. “Steve’s language is reckless, wrong, and has no place in our society. The Declaration of Independence states that ‘all men are created equal.’ That is a fact. It is self-evident.”

Both McCarthy and Scalise were silent in October when asked for comment on incendiary remarks King had made then. At the time, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was the only member of House GOP leadership to rebuke King. (Cheney had not yet been elected to her position as conference chair.)

Democrats and the Losing Politics of Contempt

Democrats didn’t lose for lack of political talent, campaign financing and organization or enthusiasm among their base. They lost because of their brand.

.. Democrats may think the brand is all about diversity, inclusion and fairness. But for millions of Americans, the brand is also about contempt — intellectual contempt of the kind Nimzowitsch exuded for his opponent

.. Contemporary liberalism now expresses itself chiefly in the language of self-affirmation and moral censure: of being the party of the higher-minded; of affixing the suffix “phobe” to millions of people who don’t appreciate being described as bigots.

.. It’s why a political strategy by Democrats that seeks to turn every local race into a referendum on Trump is likely to fail.

.. One temptation Democrats would be smart to avoid is to see Ossoff’s loss as evidence that the party needs to move further left, on the theory that not enough of the base showed up to vote.

.. And nominating more progressive candidates isn’t likely to solve the contempt problem, at least with voters not yet in sync with progressive orthodoxies on coal, guns or gender-neutral bathrooms.

.. Speaking of the 42nd president, many are the charges that can be laid at his feet, but contempt for half of all Americans was never one of them.