What is impeachment for?

During Obama’s presidency, Republican standards for impeachment were low and Democratic standards high. Now it’s the reverse. We need American standards that don’t change with the political winds.


Someday — maybe sooner, maybe later — Bob Mueller is going to issue his report on the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, whether Trump has been attempting to obstruct justice, and possibly other Trump-related scandals. When that happens, Congress and the American people will have to look at what has been found and decide what to do about it. Is it enough for an impeachment or not?

At that moment, partisans on both sides will adjust their standards to get the conclusion they want. Trumpists will put forward impossibly high standards for impeachment, and anti-Trumpists will drop their standards to match the facts available. Not admiring either of these approaches, I want to set out my general ideas about impeachment now, before we know what the evidence will say.

Previous impeachments. As background, let me start by confessing that I’m old enough to have watched two presidential impeachment processes: Nixon’s and Clinton’s. The two could not have been more different.

At the time of the Nixon impeachment hearings, the United States hadn’t impeached a president in a century. Leaders of both parties in Congress appreciated that they were wielding a fearful and awesome power. They felt the Eye of History watching them. So, while Democrats were in general the prosecutors and Republicans the defenders, both approached their roles with extreme scrupulousness. Both sides were determined to get to the truth of the matter rather than just to win.

The iconic question “What did the President know and when did he know it?” was asked by Republican Senator Howard Baker. The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to subpoena Nixon’s tapes of Oval Office conversations was overwhelmingly bipartisan (33-3). Of the five articles of impeachment considered by the committee, three were supported by some Republicans and three were opposed by some Democrats. In the end, Nixon resigned after a delegation of Republican leaders went to the White House to tell the President that they could no longer defend him.

By contrast, the Clinton impeachment was an entirely partisan exercise from beginning to end. Nixon’s special prosecutor (Leon Jaworski) had been a fellow Republican. But for Clinton, the first Republican special prosecutor hadn’t been rabid enough, so he was replaced with a more partisan one. The focus of the investigation kept shifting, eventually settling on Clinton’s sexual escapades. Even the obstruction of justice charge postulated a private conspiracy (inducing Monica Lewinsky to give false testimony in a civil lawsuit) rather than a misuse of presidential power. None of the 45 Democratic senators voted to convict on any charge.

During the Obama administration, Republicans would occasionally raise the idea of impeachment, but it was clear that their standards had declined even further since the Clinton era. Republican Congressman Kerry Bentivolio told a town hall meeting of impeachment-happy partisans that impeaching Obama would be “a dream come true”, but there was one tiny hurdle he didn’t know how to jump yet: “You’ve got to have evidence.”

Now, of course, Republican standards for impeachment are high again and Democratic standards have lowered. But what we need are American standards that we’re willing to apply to presidents of either party.

The Constitution only helps us up to a point. It lays down the basic process, but (as it so often does) leaves the details to the interpretation of later generations. Perhaps that openness is why the document has lasted this long.

I first formulated my ideas about impeachment during the Clinton process, and I will attempt to apply those theories to Trump, even though Clinton is a Democrat and Trump a Republican.

The bad-president problem. The Founders believed that any legitimate sovereignty had to come from the People, but they understood that the People would make mistakes. It was inevitable that sooner or later the United States would elect a bad president — a demagogue who was unwise, uninformed, and temperamentally unfit for the job.

It’s clear what they saw as the primary remedy for a bad president: Wait for his term to end and elect somebody else. (In the meantime, the other branches of government should use their checks and balances to minimize the harm he could do.) We may not have the same appreciation for the elect-somebody-else solution as the Founders, but you have to bear in mind that they were comparing the presidency to the monarchy of England. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #69:

The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for FOUR years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and HEREDITARY prince.

If England had a bad king, the solution was either to revolt or wait for him to die. But in the US, you could circle a date an a calendar and plan for the bad president to be gone. The Founders saw that as a big improvement.

So what is impeachment for? Impeachment is in the Constitution for those rare cases where the country just can’t wait. You can see that reflected in the clause that establishes it.

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

What makes treason and bribery so special that the Constitution names them? Each points to a problem more serious than mere incompetence or wrongheadedness or lax morals or bad temper. Both describe situations where the power of the presidency has been removed from the People and might possibly be used against them. A treasonous president is loyal to a foreign power; a bribed one is loyal to some private interest. The power of the presidency hasn’t just been used unwisely, it has been suborned or usurped. That’s a situation that can’t be allowed to continue.

Treason and bribery should be models for “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”. That phrase, I think, is intentionally vague, to give Congress the leeway to do what it thinks it needs to do. But treason and bribery should set the bar: A legitimate impeachment case needs to argue that the Republic is in danger. There must be some reason why waiting for the next election either won’t work or isn’t good enough.

Reasons to impeach. If you buy that general framework, then legitimate reasons to impeach fall into four categories:

  1. The president is not loyal to the People of the United States. Basically, treason or bribery. A third offense, which in the Nixon impeachment was called “abuse of power”, is similar if a bit more vague: Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. The power of the presidency is being used not for the common good, but to enrich the president, to reward the president’s friends, or to punish his or her enemies.
  2. The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. One reason we might not be able to wait for the next election is that the next election has been compromised. This was the heart of the Nixon impeachment: If a president can harass and spy on political rivals with impunity, then the whole election process becomes untrustworthy. You can imagine extreme cases where the president is winning elections by stuffing the ballot box, as happens in many pseudo-democratic countries.
  3. The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2). Obstruction of justice can be an impeachable offense, but it should only be used if the underlying charge has some can’t-wait significance. Nixon’s attempt to obstruct the investigation of the Watergate burglary had clear implications for the integrity of the election process. But whether or not Clinton obstructed Paula Jones’ civil lawsuit was an issue that could have waited.
  4. Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment. This is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution, but constitutional government doesn’t work otherwise. Congress necessarily relies on the executive branch to carry out the laws it passes. Presidents famously find loopholes that allow them to do things they want and avoid doing things they don’t want. But if a president ignores clear laws or disobeys direct court orders, Congress has to have some way to preserve the powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Waiting for the next election isn’t good enough, because (once the pattern is established) the next president might usurp power in the same way. Impeachment is the ultimate arrow in Congress’ quiver. If the Iran-Contra scandal had led to impeaching President Reagan, this would have been the justification.

A fifth condition is urgent in a similar way, but has its own constitutional process: A president who is insane or demented can be removed via the 25th Amendment, if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet believe he or she is unfit.

Reasons that aren’t good enough. Impeachment shouldn’t be seen as a do-over for the voters’ mistakes. No matter how many people change their minds, or how low the president’s popularity sinks, that by itself is not a reason to impeach.

Policy disagreements between the president and Congress aren’t impeachable, as long as the President is respecting Congress’ legitimate powers. Attempts to stretch presidential power into debatable areas — like Obama’s executive orders on immigration — are not impeachable if the president backs down when Congress passes new laws or the courts overturn the orders.

The president becoming an embarrassment to the country is not enough. This, I think, was the mistake at the heart of the Clinton impeachment: Many Americans were embarrassed to hear news reports about oral sex in the Oval Office. That might be a good reason to call for a president’s resignation, but not to impeach.

Loss of faith in the president’s judgment isn’t enough, unless it rises to 25th-amendment levels. If, say, a president were ready to start nuclear war for no reason, the vice president and the cabinet should step in. But if the president just demonstrates bad judgment within the ordinary human range, replacing him or her would be another form of election do-over.

Standards of proof. During the Clinton impeachment, my representative (Charlie Bass) was one of many Republicans who pledged that they would only vote for impeachment if the evidence were beyond reasonable doubt. (He lied, and voted to impeach anyway. It was certainly reasonable to believe that Clinton perjured himself or conspired in Lewinsky’s perjury. Depending on your opinion of Clinton’s character, that may even have been the more likely possibility. But by no stretch of the imagination was the case against Clinton proved beyond reasonable doubt.) I think they made that pledge because they knew that the charges against Clinton were legalistic rather than based on the kind of emergency concerns the Founders envisioned.

But is the criminal-trial standard — beyond reasonable doubt — really the appropriate one? What if members of Congress are only 90% convinced that the president is a traitor? Should they wait for the next election?

Clearly not.

Criminal conviction can take away the freedom we all value and view as our right. But political office, especially a high political office like the presidency, is an honor and a privilege rather than a right. Taking it away just reduces a president to the same level as the rest of us. So the standards of proof required shouldn’t be as high as in a criminal trial. (After a president is removed from office, a criminal indictment might follow. At that trial, the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard would apply. So it would not be unreasonable to remove a president from office via impeachment, and then fail to convict in the subsequent criminal trial. Both outcomes might be appropriate responses to the evidence.)

The House and Senate play different roles in an impeachment, and they should apply different standards. The House is like a grand jury; essentially, it is voting to indict. The Senate is the trial jury; it is deciding whether to convict. I think the House should turn the reasonable-doubt standard upside-down. Voting to impeach should mean two things:

  • The charges are serious enough that they can’t wait until the end of the president’s term, and Congress has no less drastic way to deal with them. If they are true, the president needs to be removed as soon as possible.
  • The evidence could lead reasonable people to believe that the charges are true.

The Senate is making the more serious decision. If the House impeaches, the trial in the Senate will be stressful for the country, but by itself the trial does no real harm. (The country survived the Clinton trial with little damage. The situation when Clinton’s term expired — peace, a budget surplus, low unemployment, low inflation — was arguably better than at any time since.) Improperly removing a duly elected president, though, would be a serious blow to our constitutional system.

The Senate has to weigh the risks on each side: Voting to acquit leaves a possibly dangerous president in office until the end of the term, and tells future presidents that Congress will tolerate the impeached behavior. Voting to convict might damage the presidency and devalue future elections. Which path into the future is better for the country and our system of government?

Application to Trump. It’s possible that Mueller might find the exact wrong-doing that the Constitution specifies: If Trump conspired with the Russian government to gain an advantage in the 2016 election, and if his subsequent favoritism to Russian interests stems from his political debt to Putin, that’s treason. If he has been making foreign-policy decisions based on foreign-government actions that benefit him financially (like the Chinese investment in the MNC Lido City project), that’s bribery. Those would be the slam-dunk cases.

Abuse of power accusations (like his alleged pressure on the postmaster general to raise rates on Amazon to strike back at Jeff Bezos for The Washington Post’s hostile coverage) haven’t gotten as much attention, but would also be serious if they could be proved — not just the fact of pressure, but also the intent. But I would want to see a pattern of such reprisals — like Nixon’s enemies list — rather than just one example.

The offense Mueller is most likely to find is obstruction of justice. The question I would have at that point is whether the obstruction succeeded. (Firing Comey, for example, may have been intended to derail the Russia investigation, but it obviously didn’t.) If Mueller’s conclusion is that Trump’s obstruction prevents us from knowing whether he was part of a treasonous conspiracy, then I would want to impeach him for that. But if Mueller did in fact get to the bottom of the Russia affair, then the impeachment decision should be based on the answer to that question.

One outcome, for example, could be that Trump played no part in the Russia conspiracy, but obstructed justice to cover up crimes committed by his sons or by son-in-law Jared Kushner. If that’s the case, I would indict those people immediately, and prosecute Trump for obstruction after his term ends. It’s a crime, but it’s over now, and waiting does not endanger the country.

I suspect there is considerable evidence that Trump is profiting off his presidency in ways that don’t quite rise to the level of bribery. For example, he could hardly be doing any more to promote Mar-a-Lago than he has been, including spending large quantities of public money there. (Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago have cost the taxpayers more than the entire Mueller investigation. “Probably several times over,” estimates the WaPo’s Philip Bump.) The Trump International Hotel in Washington profits extensively from foreigners attempting to curry the President’s favor. (The Trump Organization donated $151K in foreign-government profits to the Treasury, but has not explained how it came up with that number. I would be amazed if it were a fair accounting.) Michael Cohen has collected millions in what appear to be payments for access to the Trump administration, but we still don’t know if Trump conspired in that, or whether the payments bought any government favors.

However, Congress could crack down on Trump’s profiteering without resorting to impeachment. He (and future presidents) could be required to publish their tax returns. Congress could investigate the Trump Organization and do its own accounting of politically tainted profits, or insist that Trump divest (and let him decide whether he would rather resign). It could refuse to spend public funds on any businesses owned by the President. Conflict-of-interest rules that apply to every government official except the president could be extended.

Congress hasn’t done these things because Republicans don’t want to take any action against Trump. It’s crazy to imagine that impeachment is feasible as long as such common-sense moves haven’t been made. Impeachment is a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency last resort; if anything else could fix the problem, it should be tried first.

To be continued … Chances are, not all of the conclusions of the Mueller investigation will be clear-cut. There may be some evidence of collusion with Putin, but not definite proof. It may be impossible to establish whether Trump’s reluctance to sanction Russia was a quid-pro-quo or not. I’ve laid out my general principles on impeachment, but those kinds of judgment calls can’t be made without seeing the specific evidence.

When that evidence comes out, I can only hope that I and the Congress and Americans on both sides of the partisan divide will understand the gravity of the judgment to be made, and that we will all feel the Eye of History watching us.

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Comments

  • reverendsax  On June 4, 2018 at 9:47 am

    I, too, lived through Nixon and Clinton. Clinton was guilty (“as sin” as we say) of bad behavior, but to me it was not a basis for his impeachment, and the entire Ken Starr investigation seemed very much a witch hunt, going down every possible accusation but without finding evidence.

    The press needs to pursue Republicans for their answers to the standards for impeachment questions. We have no Federalist papers debate today. Sad.

    Viva Mueller!

  • reverendsax  On June 4, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Reagan looks worse with each passing year. I could not understand why he wasn’t impeached. I guess it was because he “couldn’t remember.” Now we have North running the NRA. We are quickly becoming a banana republic (with apologies to Central and South American countries which have so been named).

  • Michael Wells  On June 4, 2018 at 10:46 am

    A well-thought essay. I have one quibble: I have no idea how you conclude what you do about the Republican as opposed to Democratic standards for impeachment during the Obama administration as stated in your headline. First, there was very little discussion about impeachment then except in the nut-case circles. Second, what senior Democrats were discussing impeachment during that time? However, this quibble doesn’t undercut your sound conclusion that impeachment must not be used as a partisan tool. For those wishing to delve into the partisan nature of the Clinton impeachment, I suggest The Death of American Virtue, by Ken Gormley. For those interested in a new (to me) revelation about Nixon, please look up a recent episode by Rachel Maddow that included tapes from Haldeman (yes, he recorded voice memos) and a recording of Nixon telling Haldeman in the Oval Office that he would pardon him and others.

    • weeklysift  On June 4, 2018 at 11:15 am

      That’s a good point. I believe that Democratic standards would have been high, if any charges had met the laugh test. But I don’t actually know that.

  • Brookingslib  On June 4, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    All good points. The part about Republicans not taking action against Trump is the most troubling. Will they ever? What would it take for them to put country first? If Mueller really does have the goods on Trump, I highly doubt Republicans will act. They seem to crave power over just about anything. Time will tell.

  • Larry Benjamin  On June 4, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    I’m concerned that if the Democrats take over the House next year, the calls from their base to impeach will be difficult to ignore. But barring some convincing evidence of the crimes you describe, impeachment would look like a do-over of the 2016 election. This is the last precedent we want to set; the rival party takes over Congress, and immediately impeaches the president just to get rid of him. This is my view of the basis for the Clinton impeachment, by the way – that and revenge for what happened to Nixon.

    • Guest  On June 6, 2018 at 11:40 am

      But Larry, why fear setting a precedent that you point out has already been set in the Clinton impeachment?

      • Larry Benjamin  On June 6, 2018 at 12:19 pm

        I meant, continuing a destructive pattern. Do we want the next Democratic president to be tied up with a revenge impeachment? The GOP didn’t do that to Obama despite calls from their base to impeach him even though he hadn’t done anything to deserve it.

  • ccyager  On June 9, 2018 at 6:44 pm

    Excellent, well thought out and measured post. Thank you.

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