In a recent commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Tom Steyer argues that to save their party Republicans should impeach Trump. Steyer is the founder of Need to Impeach now claiming nearly 6 million adherents nationwide. Though Need to Impeach was launched just six months ago and now lists nine reasons Trump should be impeached, Steyer and the many other Democrats advocating impeachment have been at it from before Trump was sworn into office. And that is why their campaign should worry Republicans and Democrats alike.
Impeachment is a serious business. Removing a constitutionally elected president from office by impeachment is not just an alternative to defeating an incumbent president at the polls. Or at least it has not been over the first 230 years of our republic. Not that the idea hasn’t been pursued as recently as the Clinton administration. But so far no president has been removed from office by impeachment, let alone over purely policy or partisan disagreements, or simple disgust.
The Constitution allows removal of the president by impeachment for the commission of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” While books have been written on the meaning of the latter phrase, the impeachment process prescribed in the Constitution effectively leaves the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors to Congress. So a president can be impeached on any grounds a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate can agree to, with virtually no risk of judicial intervention.
But high crimes and misdemeanors did have reasonably precise meaning to the founding generation, and it did not include resentment over the winning of an election by a boorish, ill-mannered tweeter. Democrats in Congress or the Mueller investigation may yet come up with convincing evidence of truly impeachable offenses, but the fact that they have been searching since the beginning of Trump’s presidency undercuts their claimed reliance on constitutional principle.
Partisan appeal to impeachment is not surprising in the angry partisanship of our national politics. But that no congressional Republican (not even Trump critic John McCain in his waning hours) has embraced Steyer’s argument that only impeachment will save the Republican Party, is testimony to the still partisan nature of the impeachment campaign.
As during the Nixon administration, Republicans in Congress will act if they see their personal political futures at risk, and even a few will act on principle. But so far the case for impeachment is just hopeful allegations founded in rank partisanship.
If there is a threat to our constitutional democracy, it is not the Trump administration. The Constitution provides ample constraints on the president, even if some of those restraints have been eroded over the past several decades. Rather a threat to our or any constitutional democracy is the use of extra-constitutional means to remove a constitutionally elected president.
It will be noted, no doubt, that this president lost the popular vote and is therefore not the people’s choice. But winning the popular vote is not the constitutionally prescribed method for the election of U.S. presidents.
Democrats and Steyer would better serve our constitutional republic by abandoning their partisan impeachment campaign and focusing their energies on the constitutionally prescribed method of electing a president and other public officials who will advance their agenda. And while they are at it, they could set an example for Republicans by electing candidates who will place the good of the nation above partisan victory.