It’s not surprising that the House has impeached only three presidents, four counting Richard Nixon’s resignation before his inevitable impeachment. Nor is it surprising that the Senate has never convicted a president on impeachment charges. Removing a president from office is a drastic action that should be used sparingly. But it is remarkable how rarely the House or Senate has censured a president.
Only time will tell whether it was prudent for President Trump to authorize the killing of Qassim Soleimani. But we don’t need to wait to recognize that the constitutional design for the executive branch has failed us. As I have observed before before, no person should possess the sole power to make these kinds of decisions.
While political commentary has emphasized the septuagenarian status of leading presidential candidates, it has done so in a troubling way. Rather than worry that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Joe Biden may be the oldest person to become president, we should celebrate that fact. It’s a wonderful reflection of advances in health that people can continue to serve our country for longer periods of time. Moreover, focusing on candidate age reinforces society’s unhealthy biases against our elder citizens. Ageist views are widespread and cause serious harm.
As the House Judiciary Committee considers impeachment, there are three important questions for it to answer. Did President Trump violate his oath of office? If so, did his misconduct constitute high crimes and misdemeanors? And if so, should President Trump be impeached and removed from office?
President Trump has wanted to focus on the first question and stop further consideration there. Democratic members of Congress have focused attention on the second question and invited academic testimony there. But the third question is the most important one.
As Deval Patrick throws his hat into the ring and Michael Bloomberg takes steps to join the presidential race, their prospects are questionable. According to an historical analysis by Jeff Greenfield, late entries fare poorly. Even more evidence that our nominating process is seriously faulty. It’s not good for candidates or the public if people come too late to the campaign a year before Election Day.
The media’s reaction to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s health care plan reflects a troubling approach to the way it thinks we should evaluate candidates for the presidency. After the Senator released her very smart proposal, the media might have asked a number of important questions about the plan’s impact on health care access. Instead, much of the commentary has been about the tax implications of the plan.
In general, one cannot be confident about the intent of the Framers, and that is true about impeachment. For example, while some observers have claimed that President Trump’s dealings with the Ukraine lie at the heart of the Framers’ reasons for impeachment, the issue is far from clear.
President Trump’s decision not to host the G7 Summit at his Doral golf resort was not only prudent, it also reflects an important lesson for his supporters in Congress and elsewhere. They can stand with him by opposing impeachment charges in the House and blocking a conviction in the Senate, or they can resist his problematic behavior in the first place and prevent him from creating grounds for impeachment.
Though the criticisms of President Trump’s withdrawal from Syria have been exaggerated (see here and here), the bipartisan condemnation reflects the fact that Trump does his greatest damage to the national interest on matters that are not grounds for impeachment. When he abandons our allies, emboldens our enemies, or engages in damaging trade wars, he may be guilty of bad policy choices, but those choices are not high crimes and misdemeanors. They are matters to be judged by the voters on Election Day.
While President Trump clearly has given good reason to consider impeachment, the question remains whether impeachment is the appropriate way to address his misconduct. In one view, we should hold Presidents to high standards and impeach them if they fall short. In another view, impeachment should be reserved as a last resort when other responses to presidential wrongdoing are inadequate.
As the Framers of the Constitution observed, accountability to the public is our chief restraint on Presidents (and other elected officials). If Presidents violate their duties, they can be voted out of the Oval Office. In addition, Congress and the courts can check and balance a wayward President. Impeachment is an important tool, but as we have seen with other presidents, it can be misused for political purposes, including being used to undo an election.