There’s a timely book on the market you may wish to add to your summer reading list. The book examines the creation, history and intended use of the impeachment clause.
“To End A Presidency” by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz (2018 Basic Books) is a thoughtful, insightful examination of what the founders intended when they included the impeachment clause in the Constitution. And, yes, the authors address the Donald Trump presidency.
They believe Trump has committed numerous impeachable offenses. It may surprise you, however, that the authors, at the time the book was published, conclude Trump should NOT be impeached. Tribe has since changed his mind after the release of the Mueller report.
In the book, Tribe and Matz take the position of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA. Impeachment has the potential to rip the country apart; it’s far more than a routine political action and the public isn’t yet on board with removing Trump. The time hasn’t come.
Tribe and Matz argue that both the public and the contemporary political class have lost sight of the magnitude of the impeachment process and how it works. Forgetting Trump, think how easily the word has been thrown about since the Reagan years when it began to be used as a partisan political threat by members of both political parties.
But impeachment is serious, serious business. It reverses and invalidates the will of the people expressed through an election. Such a move would shake the foundations of our political system and our belief in that system. The clause wasn’t inserted because of buyers’ remorse; it was meant to deal with catastrophic mistakes that placed the country at actual risk.
Impeachment should be invoked only when the question is whether the country and its institutions face such immediate peril from a sitting president so great we can’t wait a few more months and allow the electorate to pass judgment, presumably removing the threat, and by using that route avoid risking public faith in our democratic system.
The other significant point Tribe and Matz make is that impeachment is not a criminal process. It is and was meant to be political in the larger sense of the public’s business, not by what we mean when we blame partisan politics for our country’s problems.
The founders were deliberate in choosing the vague terms of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in order to provide later generations more latitude in utilizing the Constitution’s “escape clause.”
Some delegates proposed much lower standards for removal. According to convention notes by James Madison, Benjamin Franklin suggested a president be removed in “cases where the chief magistrate rendered himself obnoxious.”
Were that the standard it might be too late to read Tribe and Matz’s book.
The founders placed impeachment in the legislative branch, not the judiciary. Had they wanted a criminal process they would have had the Supreme Court try the case. They understood how divisive any impeachment would be so they required conviction by a vote of a supermajority of the Senate. Such a vote would presumably indicate a large majority of the public agreed the president needed to go and increase chances the removal wouldn’t produce a civil war.
Finally, they provided no criminal penalty for conviction. The offender is removed from office and may be banned from seeking future office. But there are no fines or other penalties.
Ultimately, the question according to Tribe and Matz is this: Is the safety and future of the country more secure by allowing this president to stay in office until the next election when voters can decide his fate? Or is the risk he or she poses so great we need to remove him despite the likely political upheaval?
Only two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached and neither convicted. So regardless of how you view Trump, understand impeachment is bit like Pandora’s box. It may be necessary to open it, but we may not like what’s inside.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.