At this point, Democrats appear to have dug themselves a rather deep impeachment hole, and at least a few of them are now looking for a ladder. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) saw this coming but could not withstand the Trump-derangement tide. They do have a way out, and at least a few of them – along with their surrogates in the media – realize that censure, rather than impeachment, is their best option for dealing with President Trump in a way that will not come back to bite their carefully guarded posteriors.
Regardless of what one may think of Pelosi’s political bent, she has always been more pragmatic than her more strident party colleagues. Sure, she will step in front of any camera and talk about how Trump is spitting on the Constitution, crushing the souls of hard-working Americans, and planning to detain all non-white people before our very eyes. But, for the most part, she understands political realities.
With Republicans in control of the Senate, the California elder stateswoman always knew that articles of impeachment would have to be based on crimes so egregious and beyond doubt that even Republicans would have had no choice but to convict the president.
In their impeachment inquiry, congressional Democrats have come nowhere near that standard. Worse still, they may barely have the votes to advance articles of impeachment to the Senate. As the balance of power in the House now stands, the majority Democrats can afford to lose no more than 16 votes from their own caucus in order to impeach – assuming they get no Republican votes. The math may not be on the Democrats’ side, as they have 31 House members representing districts won by Trump in 2016.
Pelosi simply cannot discount the fact that at least half – and maybe more – of those Democrat representatives will consider their own chances of re-election as they cast their votes on articles of impeachment.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) is not one of those who represent a 2016 Trump-voting district. In fact, her safe Democrat district encompasses part of eastern Detroit. Even so, Lawrence has seen the writing on the wall: Among independent voters, enthusiasm for impeachment is waning, and Lawrence – who previously supported the idea – is perhaps now thinking beyond her own chances of re-election.
“I will tell you, sitting here knowing how divided this country is,” Lawrence explained Nov. 24 during a radio interview, “I don’t see the value of taking [Trump] out of office, but I do see the value of putting down a marker saying his behavior is not acceptable.”
An editorial, published Nov. 23 by The Detroit News, suggests censure of the president rather than impeachment, and The Chicago Tribune followed suit on Nov. 25. It is neither unfair nor inaccurate to point out that the left-wing media rarely take up a political narrative not preapproved by someone within the Democratic Party. So the sudden appearance of editorials arguing for censure strongly suggests that Democrat strategists are leaning in that direction or at least testing the waters.
What Is Censure?
Unlike impeachment, censure is not a constitutional measure. That is not to say that censure is unconstitutional, but that it is simply a course of action devised by Congress and not described in the nation’s founding document. There is no mandatory consequence to censure, and nobody would suggest that censure could lead to removal from the office of president. It has been used most often to rebuke or reprimand members of Congress, though Trump, were he censured, would not be the first commander in chief to have faced it.
In effect, censure is an act of disapproval. For a member of Congress, it may entail such undesirable consequences as loss of committee memberships or even suspension; it comes with no penalties when used against executive branch officials. And that is how it should be, or the concepts of separation of powers and co-equal branches of government would likely be swept away in an avalanche of partisan censure votes.
Both the Senate and the House have the power to censure or reprimand, and each chamber may do it without the approval or involvement of the other. Censure requires only a simple majority. At least some Democrats, surely, are considering how much easier than impeachment censure will be. They also may be considering how a censure resolution will provide the opportunity to pontificate at length – on live TV – about Trump’s moral turpitude and failings, both as a human being and as a president.
In 1834, Democrat President Andrew Jackson was censured by a Whig Senate for firing the Treasury secretary. President John Tyler, a Democrat-turned-Whig who may have been even more of a boat-rocking maverick than Trump, was reprimanded (another form of censure) in 1842 by the House of Representatives. President James Polk was reprimanded in 1848 by the House. President Abraham Lincoln was reprimanded by the Senate in 1864.
Some members of Congress argued for censuring, rather than impeaching, President Bill Clinton, and that brings up an important point about impeachment: Attempting to remove a president from office by any means other than a general election is, without a doubt, the gravest and most consequential action the Congress can take. If the constitutional republic – with its democratic method of choosing a president – is to be preserved, a president should not be removed from office by Congress for anything less than an act that directly endangers the American people or the U.S. government.
Jackson, Tyler, and Lincoln did nothing that justified such a measure. Polk took the country to war without congressional approval – very much an impeachable offense, many would argue. How about Clinton? He was not impeached for having sexual relations with a White House intern but for lying about it to Congress.
If every politician were removed from office for lying, we would have no political leadership at all. Clinton’s lie did not jeopardize the security or stability of the United States, and one could certainly argue that his was not an impeachable offense. At the time, the American people appeared to agree.
The Founding Fathers proscribed impeachment for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. These are serious crimes – high crimes. Removing from office a duly elected president for anything less is congressional tyranny. Perhaps, before they step into the abyss, some Democrats are coming to that realization. Or perhaps they are simply guarding their posteriors.
Read more from Graham J Noble.