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.
When Special Counsel Robert Mueller declined to recommend an indictment of President Trump earlier this year, an important factor was the long-standing view that presidents are immune from criminal prosecution while in office. So how come a federal judge in New York rejected the President’s efforts to block a criminal probe of his hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal?
There clearly are good reasons for members of Congress to contemplate impeachment of President Trump. He tried to secure assistance from Ukrainian President Zelensky to promote his reelection campaign, he has used his office to promote his personal financial interests, and he has tried to obstruct justice. Whether he has abused his position to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors can be determined through further investigation and proceedings.
But some members of Congress, as well as some political observers, have invoked arguments that go too far. As the House moves forward with its impeachment inquiry, it is important that it does so on solid ground—otherwise, it risks making the process look like it’s more about partisan disagreements than about high crimes and misdemeanors. Here are some misguided arguments that have been made.
The recent revelation about President Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Zelensky have rightly provoked serious concern, especially the possibility that Trump blocked nearly $400 million in military aid to secure help for his re-election campaign .
This has intensified support for impeachment. But taking action against President Trump would only be a partial solution to the problem.
These reversals provoke considerable concern about the implications for climate change. They also reflect a serious defect in our winner-take-all system of government. When one party seizes control of the executive power, it can drive policies in one direction. And when the other party regains power, it can reverse course and take policy in the other direction. This high volatility in policy serves the country and the world poorly.
While the Constitution’s system of checks and balances often breaks down, giving the White House too much power (see here and here), recent action by California reflects the important role that the states play in containing presidential action.
It seems that President Trump has a unique ability to push people apart—launching trade wars, disrupting international agreements, or attacking immigrants and political opponents. He’s split family and other personal relationships. But even with a new person in the Oval Office, we’ll still be highly polarized. It’s not so much the president who is polarizing, it’s the presidency.
While Democratic members of Congress are still debating whether to begin the impeachment process, people watching the questioning of former special counsel Robert Mueller yesterday could easily have thought they were viewing an impeachment proceeding.