Impeaching a President

A 1974 Congressional staff memorandum, entitled Report by the Staff of the Impeachment Inquiry, has resurfaced. The Report was prepared in connection with the potential impeachment of Richard Nixon. Hillary Clinton was a young attorney hired to help with the work, though her name does not appear on the list of contributors on the author page. The analysis element of the Report runs only 26 pages, but contains a compelling and unique assessment, given the circumstances of its creation, of the appropriate criteria for impeachment proceedings by the House of Representatives. The Republican enablers of Donald Trump notwithstanding, the Report is consistent with contemporary analyses of the reasons for and essential elements of impeachment, as intended by the framers, as well as the considerations that are not required criteria for impeachment under the Constitution.

The remaining pages of the Report in two appendices summarize the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 regarding impeachment and various American impeachment cases going back to 1797, most of which relate to federal judges. As a reminder, impeachment by the House of Representatives is in the nature of a political indictment; it is a set of accusations. The trial of articles of impeachment is conducted by the Senate. Conviction requires a vote of two-thirds of the Senators present.

I will spare you the intricate legal details and summarize the key points. If you want to read the memo itself, it can be found at https://bit.ly/2lPNB6p

The Constitution states that impeachment may be brought for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a sequence of words that historically referred to “offenses … against the system of government.” Report at 5. Through several centuries, impeachment was determined to refer to “negligent discharge of duties and improprieties in office,” “abuse of official power or trust,” and “corruption in office.” Report at 6-7. Most significantly, while the commission of crimes in office may be included in an impeachment charge, violations of common law or criminal law are not prerequisites. Impeachment was intended as a broad remedial regime for “executive abuse and usurpation of power.” Report at 8.

The Report makes clear that violations of Constitutional mandates, such as the prohibition of emoluments from foreign powers are proper subjects for impeachment. Report at 13. And, in a discussion with direct implications for a current issue swirling around Donald Trump, the Report notes that Convention delegate George Mason stated that the use of the presidential pardon power to “pardon crimes which were advised by himself” or “to stop inquiry and prevent detection” are proper subjects of impeachment. Report at 13.

Of similar import in relation to Trump’s appointment of grifters to the Cabinet, the Report at 15 makes clear that the President may be impeached if he allows executive officers appointed by him or under his supervision to commit high crimes and misdemeanors or “neglects to superintend their conduct.”

It is worth repeating that impeachment does not require, though it certainly permits, allegations of conduct that would violate the criminal code.

Much more common in the articles are allegations that the officer has violated his duties or his oath or seriously undermined public confidence in his ability to perform his official functions. Recitals that a judge has brought his court or the judicial system into disrepute are commonplace. In the impeachment of President Johnson, nine of the articles allege that he acted “unmindful of the high duties of his office and of his oath of office,” and several specifically refer to his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed…. Impeachment is “intended to reach a broad variety of conduct by officers that is both serious and incompatible with the duties of the office. [Report at 21]

Finally, in its detailed rejection of the argument that an indictable crime must be alleged in an impeachment, the Report states that,

Unlike a criminal case, the, cause for the removal of a President may be based on his entire course of conduct in office. In particular situations, it may be a course of conduct more than individual acts that has a tendency to subvert constitutional government.

This understanding of impeachment bears directly on the conduct of Donald Trump in ways too numerous to mention in a one blog post. It is clear, however, that the Report provides a solid legal foundation for impeaching Trump if the Democrats controlling the House of Representatives have sufficient determination to use the tools available to fight the criminality and abuse of office that has characterized Trump’s conduct of the presidency since his inauguration.

The principal arguments against impeachment appear to be two: (1) political unpopularity — the people won’t approve of trying to remove Trump with the election just about a year away; and (2) the Senate will never convict because the Republican majority will never abandon Trump no matter what the evidence shows.

I doubt that the first reason is true except as to Trump’s loyal base who apparently will support him no matter what he does. But all available evidence points to the reality that the anti-Trump segment of the population outnumbers the Trumpers by a significant margin. There is no apparent reason for the House to concern itself with the Trumper sentiment that will never turn against Trump.

As to the second factor, given Republican intransigence, the smart move is to conduct a very slow impeachment process. Present the extensive evidence slowly in hearings throughout the next year but do not take a vote in the House and thus deny the Senate the chance to “exonerate” Trump following a show trial before the 2020 election.

 

 

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