Censure, Not Impeachment: Make a Moral, Not a Political Statement
With the Impeachment Train now leaving the station and gathering speed, it may seem futile to push for another option — censure. But making the argument early may burnish censure’s appeal if the impeachment process stalls or derails — which early signs indicate it will.
Given the instigating event — Donald Trump’s phone call with the new Ukraine president asking a “favor” (that Ukraine investigate the business dealings of the son of Trump’s likely 2020 Democratic rival, Joe Biden), while putting U.S. military aid to Ukraine on hold — and given the partisan lines already being drawn, the high crime and misdemeanor required to impeach will be hard to prove.
While Democrats see wrongdoing and abuse of power, further imperiling our democracy — Trump demanding a quid pro quo for his own political gain, in exchange for nearly $400 million in military aid Ukraine badly needs in its war with Russia — Republicans see no explicit quid pro quo, claiming it “an absolute joke” (a voter) and a “nothing-burger” of a call (Sen. Lindsey Graham), a call based on the “hearsay” of a “partisan” whistleblower (memo here). Should the Democratic-controlled House draw up articles of impeachment, the Republican-controlled Senate will not likely change this tune, even despite new reporting of the machinations of Trump’s minions — personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — to secure Ukraine’s commitment to investigate the Bidens, among Trump’s other political aims.
Ahead lies the Slough of Obstruction: Administration figures said they will defy House subpoenas, meaning court delays, and now the White House says it will not cooperate in the inquiry, launching a strategy of “stall, obfuscate, attack, repeat,” per the Associated Press; in response the Democrats will cite obstruction of justice. And the hearings process itself, if we get there: When the New York Times, after declaring impeachment “the only option,” editorialized about lines of inquiry — to determine which White House and State Department staff listened in on Trump’s call, and who received a readout of the call, and who were involved in the “lock down” of the record — this heart sank: Who said what to whom and when — what would any of it mean, would any of it matter?
In all this argle-bargle — procedural, judicial, partisan — how can Truth be revealed?
The elemental truth that Democrats want to get at is, at bottom, a moral one: that in the universe of right and wrong action, it is simply wrong — in fact it is the essence of corruption — for the super-powerful to muscle the less powerful into action serving the super-powerful. The mechanism best suited to reflect this moral point is the censure (also here, here, and here). And Trump’s shout-out to China, days ago, that it too should investigate the Bidens only amplifies his moral blindness — which blindness, again, is best addressed not with the unwieldy impeachment inquiry, but with censure.
The word “censure” itself implies moral judgment or opprobrium, whereas impeachment is political. While Americans of recent generations are uneasy at being “judge-y,” Trump has served up such a cornucopia of corruption, as revealed in the Ukraine case and beyond, that censure becomes really a matter of shooting fish in a barrel: Let us count the ways. House Democratic leadership has opted to focus solely on the Ukraine case in its impeachment inquiry, but the beauty of censure is that it could open out into the entire universe of Trump’s corruption, his anti-democratic norm-destruction, his incessant lying.
Picture it: Congressional Censure with a Bill of 101 (or however many) Particulars.
Censure also has this advantage: It can be passed by a simple majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate, unlike the two-thirds’ vote in both bodies required to impeach. Again, in the Republican-controlled Senate, getting 67 Republican profiles in courage to impeach a president who now effectively controls their party is well nigh impossible. But appealing to a handful of Republicans in both houses to stand for the principles the GOP once stood for: That is within the realm of the possible.
Another advantage: A neat-and-relatively-simple Congressional censure would restore the oxygen that’s been sucked away from both the legislative process and the presidential campaign trail by the juggernaut of media attention now fixed on impeachment. That juggernaut obscures the fact we are still talking impeachment inquiry, not impeachment per se; it also drowns out discussion of alternatives like censure or letting the 2020 elections, only 13 months away, decide Trump’s fate.
Powering that media juggernaut are polls showing, week by week, rising support for impeachment. But Democrats should beware: It is mostly Democrats who are swinging from No to Yes on impeachment, not Independents or Republicans. According to the Brookings Institution’s William Galston (as of Oct. 7): “Across the surveys that report partisan breakdowns, support for impeachment now averages 78% among Democrats and 38% among Independents compared to only 13% among Republicans.”
Granted, the historical record on presidential censure is scant: The only president to be censured to date has been Andrew Jackson, by the Senate in 1834, for refusing to re-charter the Bank of the United States (this censure was later expunged). But this scantiness only heightens the historic clout of just the second presidential censure in more than two centuries of national life. Again, picture it for Donald J. Trump: Congressional censure with a Bill of 101 (or however many) Particulars.
And think what Trump’s censure would signal to the world: that the America the world has long respected is working mightily to recover its respectable self….
Again, with the Impeachment Train barreling down the tracks, arguing for censure may be futile. Pro-impeachment supporters argue that the array of evidence laid out by an impeachment process could persuade Republican holdouts — a fantastical if. For myself, I believe no president in our history deserves impeachment more, but my abiding fear is: With the Senate refusing to convict, Trump could claim that he is exonerated of all charges, then get re-elected — truly catastrophic for America.
Better than impeachment, which will not conclude anything because it will not be passed, censure — which is moral in thrust, easily achieved, and can be broad in scope — does offer a conclusion, a transcendent one. Which is: Of this whole long and dark and ruinous nightmare Donald Trump has put America through, we could finally say, formally and for the record — it is wrong.
Image: Andy Feliciotti, Unsplash