considering censure

The question of the moment should not be what decision to reach in re Donald Trump. Justice is always best served by a process that generates evidence and permits a defense before any decision is reached. A process conducted by Congress cannot avoid being political, but it can be structured so that all sides get heard and the conclusions are open rather than foreordained. This is important for fairness and legitimacy.

Not to hold any kind of process at all would itself be a decision. It would be a clear statement that presidents enjoy impunity when their party controls at least one house of Congress. That would be another step in the degeneration of our system. I think this degeneration reflects fairly deep flaws built into the Constitution. But that is no excuse for non-action.

An impeachment process would require public hearings and debates, which would be valuable for the American people to see and to assess. It would count as a “judicial proceeding,” thus justifying the release of key documents, including those involved in grand jury proceedings. It would also justify sending the president written questions, and if he refused to answer, that refusal would be material to the decision. It would force all members of the House to take a position; all Senators, too, if the House voted to impeach.

On the other hand, impeachment is not much of a sanction if it doesn’t lead to conviction in the Senate. A split result might further cheapen the constitutional remedy of impeachment.

Although Jeffrey Isaac is right that members of the House and presidential candidates can address other issues while an impeachment process unfolds, their attention and the public’s focus are finite resources. Impeachment would dominate politics. If that helped Trump by keeping him in the spotlight or by obscuring a truly substantive debate about policy and philosophy within the Democratic primary, it would not serve the public interest.

Senators should be forced to take positions on Trump’s alleged obstruction, but an impeachment vote could be more politically costly for Democratic incumbents than for Republicans. The Post is reporting that the public is currently against impeachment, 56%-37%. Opinions certainly could shift as a result of the process, but you have to assume that attitudes toward Donald Trump are now pretty durable. It doesn’t make sense to punish a president by subjecting his opposition to a tough political battle.

The considerations against impeachment make me wonder about censure. Like impeachment, censure would not be a foreordained decision but a choice for each house of Congress to consider after due investigation and public debate. The practical consequences of censure are the same as those of impeachment if we assume that the Senate would fail to convict. The civic advantages of the debate and public vote are the same. I suppose nobody knows whether censure counts as a “judicial process,” but the House would certainly argue so when demanding sealed grand jury documents. The public might be more receptive to censure than impeachment, and it could be done quicker.

The main disadvantage is that a process to determine whether to censure the president forecloses the possibility of removing him from office. It says that Trump will finish his term unless something else arises that necessitates impeachment. That implication is hard to swallow but might make the best sense overall.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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