I may have to retract my July 2018 CWR piece, in which I pretty much said that talk of a “Cold Civil War” last summer was a hyped-up liberalism and lax news reporting.
That was before the House of Representatives opened an official inquiry on impeaching the president of the United States. If it hasn’t gone hot, the heat from the cold civil war has crept up a notch or two.
Self-disclosure: I did vote for Donald Trump. I did that only by pondering a comparative vote for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There were, in my judgment, many, many things to dislike about both. My vote came down to which of those things I disliked least. The thing I liked least about Mrs. Clinton was her extremism on abortion. What I liked least about Mr. Trump was his extremism on immigration. There were plenty of things equally disagreeable in the mid-ranges as well, but those two were crucial.
What I expected
For the most part Mr. Trump has proven to be what I expected. He is absolutely unfiltered and volatile and crude in his off-the-cuff way. Given his entrepreneurial instincts, it’s not a bad way of keeping his opponents off-balance. That’s business. But in politics and civic life, it’s not received so well.
Still, the same instincts mean he is always looking for a deal: on trade, on immigration, on international relations, in domestic economics. He did get our NATO allies to chip in more of their promised 2 percent GDP toward NATO expenses, but it did require his signature huffing-and-puffing threatening the alliance to get it. That’s his way.
He is also willing to tone things down when necessary, no matter his talk. He is the only president I have heard to muse aloud about “proportionality” in the justifiable war doctrine, which finally called for restraint in response to the Iranian take-down of a US drone. One unmanned drone, proportionately, was not worth an estimated 150 dead Iranians.
That odd constitutional phrase—high crimes and misdemeanors—to describe the grounds to impeach and remove public officials dates back to at least 1386. That was when the first Earl of Suffolk and Lord Chancellor of England under Richard II, one Michael de la Pole, was convicted in Parliament upon charges of embezzlement and negligence.
This was one of the opening shots in the developing dispute between Parliament and the king which saw several of Richard’s officials convicted of treason, stripped of office, and even hanged (assuming they hadn’t fled to France beforehand, as Pole eventually did).
That is the first thing to think about impeachment. Foremost it is a political action, not a judicial action. The subject of impeachment has made himself or herself politically insufferable and largely for, well, political reasons.
“High crimes and misdemeanors” noted in the Constitution—also containing “bribery and treason” as an afterthought—is as vaguely defined today as in 1386. At best it comes out as “what we don’t like,” whatever the real evidence may be.
President Clinton was objectively guilty of perjury and obstruction, revealed in civil depositions (he resigned from the Arkansas bar association before his license was suspended, and he paid a $90,000 contempt of court citation imposed by a federal judge). Yet his misdeeds were not politically objectionable, not enough to merit removal from office.
Never, not once, did a majority of Americans see any compelling reason to remove Mr. Clinton from office. The Democratic Senate came nowhere near a 2/3 vote to remove the president. The House Republicans lost five seats in the 1998 elections—predictions had been for a gain of six to 30 seats—largely for their prosecution of a likable president. Mr. Clinton’s favorable poll numbers even increased as the Senate trial developed. He left office with favorable ratings nearly matching those of Dwight Eisenhower.
The Democrats in this latest instance of Trump v. Everybody are in the same fix, except Mr. Trump really isn’t all that likable and his favorable polling has rarely touched 45 percent.
The House Democrats may vote for impeachment, but the Republican Senate will never convict. If anyone thinks a bipartisan coalition can come together to remove Mr. Trump from his presidency, well, they’ve been dipping into Willy Wonka’s chocolate vats.
Former Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake stated that 35 Republican senators, if permitted secret ballots, would vote to remove Trump from office. He was responding to an MSNBC Republican strategist saying that 30 senators would vote for impeachment; Mr. Flake broadened the number. I find both assertions doubtful. I have to conclude Mr. Flake was talking for a headline, and he duly received many.
Do the math. Assuming all Democrat senators will vote for impeachment without fear of offending those home constituencies that voted for Trump, conviction would still require 20 Republicans joining the Democrats (and the lone Independent) for the necessary two-thirds conviction. And as Mr. Flake doubtless knows, the Senate doesn’t do secret ballots.
Combined polling with both parties pretty much says leave Trump alone, though as you would expect, it leans more Republican than Democrat. Yet it includes both. This was the case with Clinton. It was also the case with President Nixon.
That means roughly 42-47 percent will view impeachment of Mr. Trump as improper and merely political. That range, incidentally, matches polling following Nixon’s resignation, when he was threatened with impeachment for reasons what were far clearer than those before us now.
Even up to the eve of his resignation, 42 percent did not think Mr. Nixon should be removed from office. That meant 58 percent did, but the division is instructive. Americans do not like impeachment, and a significant minority will view it dimly.
More than one historian traces the hostile divisions of today back to the efforts to remove the Nixon presidency.
There of course are other domestic divisions among Americans besides Mr. Trump’s abrasive style. But we should ask who a Trump presidency threatens most. I have to note, and not exactly as an aside, that Trump has acted aggressively on pro-life questions with his court appointments as well in his most recent declaration to the UN that abortion is not an international human right. He may be painted as a buffoon, and might in fact be one, but there is little doubt he really frightens the pro-choice lobby.
But suppose he is made to go?
He will be the first. Only two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson (Abraham Lincoln’s successor) and Bill Clinton. Neither was convicted. Mr. Nixon resigned from office before impeachment articles were voted. It is very difficult to convict a president. That historical fact would suggest caution.
Though Andrew Johnson is historically regarded as one of the three worst presidents ever (and most of his contemporaries certainly thought so even before history made its judgment), one senator who voted for his acquittal put it:
… no future president will be safe who happens to differ with a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate on any measure deemed by them important. Blinded by partisan zeal, they will not scruple to remove out of the way any obstacle to the accomplishment of their purposes. And what then becomes of the checks and balances of the Constitution?
If Mr. Trump is in fact impeached a significant number of Americans inevitably will see it as a piece with all those “Resist” t-shirts from Inauguration Day, as just part of what they regard as the seamless effort to delegitimize his presidency. A flat 40 percent or more will see impeachment as illegitimate and his removal—as remote as that seems—as a bloodless coup d’état.
The broader questions
Let us ask:
- How will his removal aid in strengthening the already weakened bipartisanship in Congress?
- Will his removal from office aid measurably in restoring our political conversation to any level of renewed civility (good-natured humor can wait)?
- Will it help at all in seeking necessary political compromise when the opportunity does present itself?
(Note: The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of other CWR contributors or of Ignatius Press. The essay originally stated that the “Democratic Senate came nowhere near a 3/4 vote to remove” Mr. Clinton from the presidency; that has been corrected to “a 2/3 vote”.)
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