The Democratic split over impeaching President Trump just burst into the open.
“Donald John Trump has, by his statements, brought the high office of President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace and disrepute, has sown discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, has betrayed his trust as President the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.”
So reads Rep. Al Green’s resolution calling for President Trump’s impeachment. On Wednesday, the Texas Democrat used a series of parliamentary moves to force Congress to consider a vote on his resolution.
In an unusual rebuke, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer released a joint statement opposing Green’s resolution. “Legitimate questions have been raised about [the President’s] fitness to lead this nation,” they said. “Right now, Congressional committees continue to be deeply engaged in investigations into the President’s actions both before and after his inauguration. The special counsel’s investigation is moving forward as well, and those inquiries should be allowed to continue. Now is not the time to consider articles of impeachment.”
Even so, 58 of the 193 House Democrats voted against the motion to table Green’s resolution, in defiance of Pelosi’s wishes.
Rep. Green’s articles of impeachment are unusual
The text of Green’s resolution is worth studying. It doesn’t mention Russia or the allegations that Trump broke the law and obstructed justice. It isn’t interested in his foreign policy or his provocations towards Kim Jong Un or his broader execution of his presidential duties.
Instead, the resolution focuses on the ways Trump has tarnished “the majesty and dignity of the presidency with causes rooted in white supremacy, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, or neo-Nazism,” as well as “harmed American society by publicly casting contempt on individuals and groups, inciting hate and hostility, sowing discord among the people of the United States, on the basis of race, national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”
There’s a raging debate about what exactly counts as “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment. As I outlined in the case for normalizing impeachment, these terms describe violations of the public trust, not just criminality. Asked, for instance, about a president who removed executive officials without good reason, James Madison replied that “the wanton removal of meritorious officers would subject him to impeachment and removal.” Capricious firings are not a crime, but they were, according to the founders, an impeachable offense.
Even so, there’s no actual agreement among constitutional scholars on what counts as impeachable. As Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein puts it in Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide, “while the voices in the ratification debates were not entirely consistent and often less than precise, they can be fairly summarized in this way: If a president were to engage in some egregious violation of the public trust while in office, he could be impeached, convicted, and removed from office.” But what, precisely, counts as an egregious violation of the public trust?
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) has also introduced articles of impeachment in the House. But he believes that it’s so difficult to describe a non-criminal violation of the public trust that Democrats are better off not trying. His resolution focuses on Trump’s alleged criminality, particularly his obstruction of the investigation into Russia’s activities in the 2016 election.
“There are 320 million people out there. When they hear the term ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ their reaction is, ‘Show me the crime,’” Sherman told me.
In my article on impeachment, I argued that a president’s incompetence could and should be impeachable. The president of the United States could order a nuclear holocaust before breakfast. Given the danger an unfit president poses to both the nation and the world, basic competence and stability should be a requirement for continued presence in the job — and in my reporting, Trump’s basic competence and stability is doubted by not just Democrats, but also by congressional Republicans and his own staff.
Rep. Green is arguing for a third standard. It is Trump’s social divisiveness that he believes to be impeachable. The list of offenses Green identifies in his resolution includes Trump’s attacks on kneeling NFL players, his statements in the aftermath of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march, his retweeting of anti-Muslim videos sourced to a far-right British political party, his efforts to ban Muslims from traveling to and from the United States, his order prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military, his dismissive comments in the aftermath of the Puerto Rico hurricane, and more.
“For too long, we have allowed our civility to prevent us from confronting the invidious incivility of President Donald J. Trump,” Green wrote in a letter to his colleagues. “In doing this, hatred disguised as acceptable political correctness has festered in our body politics and polluted our discourse to our detriment.”
Why top Democrats are afraid of impeaching Trump
The hard reality about impeachment: There’s no set standard for it. It is a political judgment ultimately made by Congress, a political body. And though polls show that a plurality of Americans support impeaching Trump, top Democrats doubt that a messy, divisive, and certain-to-fail impeachment process offers their fastest or smoothest path back to power.
Pelosi and Hoyer’s rebuke of Green reflects those concerns. Democrats won massive victories in Virginia and New Jersey’s recent elections, and they are unexpectedly optimistic about their chances in the Alabama Senate election. Looming in the future are the 2018 midterm elections, where Democrats appear to hold a huge advantage — they’re currently eight points over Republicans in the generic ballot.
Amid all this, top Democrats see impeachment as a distraction that could take focus away from Trump’s failures and the GOP’s agenda while activating the Republican base. If the coming elections are a referendum on Trump, Democrats are confident in their chances. If they’re a referendum on impeachment, that’s a tougher campaign. Party leaders remember well their victories in the 1998 midterm election, which were part of a backlash to the Republican Party’s effort to impeach President Bill Clinton.
In addition, whether Trump’s impeachment and removal are merited, that’s a political fantasy, at least for now. Impeachment would require a majority vote in the House and conviction would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate — Democrats don’t have anything close to those majorities, and zero Republicans have thus far come out in support of removing Trump. Given these numbers, pursuing impeachment seems, to Pelosi and Hoyer, like a fool’s errand — all political downside with no practical chance of success.
But Green’s resolution shows how hard it will be for Democratic leaders to hold back their base’s desire to see Trump removed from office, particularly if they win power in 2018.