Low Tweets and Misdemeanors: The Impeachment Debate Through the Lens of History and the Constitution
“Few, if any, of the Framers viewed the prospect of presidential impeachment with the unbridled horror common among intellectual leaders today. CEOs can be cashiered for “moral turpitude,” “unprofessional conduct,” and the like. Yet we’ve somehow managed to convince ourselves that the one job in America where you have to commit a felony to get fired is the one where you actually get nuclear weapons.” — Indispensable Remedy: The Broad Scope of the Constitution’s Impeachment Power
Calls for impeachment are growing louder by the day. Billionaire Tom Steyer has garnered nearly 7 million signatures through the “Need to Impeach” campaign, and with Democrats about to retake a majority in the House, Rep. Maxine Waters is saying that impeachment proceedings should begin immediately.
Much of this is partisan hype, and incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already signaled that she will rein in her colleagues’ excesses. She recently commented that “when and if he breaks the law, that is when something like that would come up.” Allegations of campaign finance violations from Trump’s hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels could fall into this category, but most experts see this is as a flimsy justification.
However, there may still be valid reasons to use what James Madison called “the indispensable remedy” against Trump’s abuses of the executive office. Pelosi’s comments stem from a common misconception about impeachment that it can only be used when the law has been broken, when in fact it can be used to address a much wider range of “conduct unbecoming” to the Presidency.
Gene Healy, a Vice President at the Cato Institute, is trying to dispel this and other myths about impeachment. Without making a specific case for impeaching Trump (with all the partisan pitfalls that would entail), Healy’s latest white paper serves as a primer on the purpose, history, and scope of impeachment provisions. He concludes that the remedy is an important deterrent against the “incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate.” He argues that impeachment has probably not been used often enough in the past 230 years when Presidents have exhibited these traits without technically breaking the law. Some of the Commander-in-Chief’s tweets are a prime example.
Healy is a leading critic of the “Cult of the Presidency,” which believes the office of the executive to be sacrosanct. The Founders would have abhorred the idea of the President being beyond reproach or — in the extreme case — removal from office. He joined me to discuss the Framers’ intention with respect to impeachment.
While most analyses are clouded with political bias and tribalism, Healy recognizes the danger in raising or lowering the bar for impeachment to suit the latest political winds. “What you think of Congress’ impeachment power shouldn’t depend on what you think of President Trump,” he writes, “Donald Trump isn’t going to be the last president we have, so it’s important to get this right.”
We did our best to get it right. You be the judge.