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.
With regard to Trump, the impeachment question has become intertwined with political judgments. He has made many decisions that raise questions about his fitness for the presidency (including his recent green light to Turkey to attack our Kurdish allies in Syria), and much of the support for impeachment reflects a sense that he should not be able to wield the power of the presidency. But disagreements about policy are not a justification for impeachment.
When one considers only the grounds for impeachment, is resort to impeachment necessary? With regard to Trump’s Ukraine dealings, for example, one could argue that other officials have been able to contain him. He has faced resistance both within the U.S. government and from the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian officials are loath to get caught up in our partisan battles, and congressional inquiries forced the release of the military aid that had been blocked. Indeed, while Trump tried to recruit the Ukraine to promote his re-election campaign, it appears that he was unsuccessful in doing so.
We saw the same thing when Trump tried to obstruct the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Many of his advisers refused to carry out some of his orders, ensuring that the investigation could be conducted.
On the other hand, there are strong arguments that measures short of impeachment are unable to contain Trump. First, he repeatedly tries to violate the law. No matter the pushback, he ignores his legal limits. In addition, containment is not working with regard to his personal financial dealings. He continues to exploit his office to enrich himself, through his Washington, DC hotel, his golf resorts, and his other interests. Even if the courts invoke the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, that would only stop him from making money off foreign governments, leaving him unimpeded when he makes money off Americans and other individuals.