Having just finished reading the little book, Impeachment: An American History, by Jeffrey Engel, Jon Meacham, Peter Baker and Timothy Naftali, I am more convinced than ever that the several moves to impeach Donald Trump have merit and will proceed. The book’s authors do not take that stand, not even in the Conclusion written by Jeffrey Engel. But it’s clear that in writing about the three previous impeachments in American history—the one in 1868 of Andrew Johnson, the one in 1974 of Richard Nixon, and the one in 1999 of Bill Clinton—Meacham, Naftali and Baker definitely had today’s impeachment possibility in mind. Even so, the meat of the book, to my mind, is really contained in the three sections authored by Engel: the Introduction, the history of the Constitution’s writers concerning impeachment, and the Conclusion.
Take the history first. Engel makes clear that the 1787 Constitutional Convention was called primarily because the Articles of Confederation that purported to govern the thirteen colonies until that time weren’t working. The main problem: no central authority. The colonies, that is, each governed themselves, coined their own money, and imposed tariffs on each other as they saw fit. The result was chaos, or as most referred to it, anarchy. It was to solve this problem of ‘anarchy’ that the framers decided to institute the office of President. Like a monarch, he would be able to think and act for the country as a whole, rather than parochially for each state. He would embody the central authority of the government and act as a check on the more partisan tendencies of the representatives of individual states. But there were problems raised. The nation had formed itself in opposition to the unchecked power of England’s king. Monarchies concentrated power in one person and this led to the abuses the colonies had suffered firsthand. Everyone in the United States feared monarchical power. So the two dangers were, in effect, played off against each other: mass chaos and anarchy on the one hand, and unchecked concentration of power on the other.
Once a president was decided upon, therefore, some way to check that power was needed. And here is where impeachment was proposed as a remedy. Of course, if George Washington could have remained president, few people would have feared unchecked power. And the key to Washington’s near-deification in this regard was the quality that he seemed to display: his concern always for the whole country, even at the expense of his own interests. As Pennsylvania’s Governor Morris, who opposed impeachment, put it: the president was to be “A firm guardian of the people and of the public interest…their great protector” who put their welfare above his own(p. 29). So, for the framers, the defects that might deserve a president’s impeachment could be summarized as: “What would George Washington nothave done?” (9). The framers had to be more specific, of course, and so, after much debate and word substitutions, they came up with these words:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Most of this is clear. But the key words have always been “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What, precisely, did the framers mean by “high” crimes? Jeffrey Engel is very edifying about this. “High” crimes were crimes “committed against the sovereign state, or against the people in republics” (37). That is to say, as opposed to crimes that one citizen might commit to injure another, “high” crimes were “those committed against the crown in a monarchy, or the people in a democracy” (ibid). And it is important to note that a “high” crime in this sense need not be indictable under criminal laws or statutes. Engel cites Hugh Williamson of the Constitutional Convention, in defining impeachable offenses as “offenses against the public interest.”An early Supreme Court justice further defined them as “offenses which are committed by public men in violation of their public trust and duties” (39). Engel concludes by summarizing thus:
This is why the absence of virtue—evidenced by a president’s concern for his own welfare above and beyond the public’s, whose fate he is entrusted to preserve—is the best sign we have that the founders would have wanted him impeached (45).
“Virtue” is not a word we use much these days, especially regarding public figures, but it is the visible lackof that quality by a president who looks out for himself rather than the public he is sworn to serve, that is key here. And it takes very little reflection to see that precisely this concern, over and above concern for the public good, best characterizes Donald Trump. He has been called everything from selfish to self-obsessed to pathologically “narcissistic” (concerned for himself to the exclusion of all others), all of which point to the absence of the very “virtue” that we expect presidents to have.
But of course, characterizations by journalists or opponents or even psychological experts (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, 2017) are not sufficient to impeach a president. There must be some kind of evidence assembled by the House of Representatives and presented to the Senate for a trial. It is for this reason that Richard Nixon was able to last almost two years under intense scrutiny and vilification: there was no real evidence that, despite being a dirty trickster and loathsome human being, Nixon had actually directed the break-in at the Watergate and the subsequent coverup. Until, that is, the White House tapes were discovered—and I remember what a banner day that was. But even then, Nixon himself took charge of editing the tape transcripts, wiped out certain passages that proved his involvement in the crimes, and almost got away with these edited tape transcripts. Except that he forgot something big: a copy of the tapes had already been given to Judge John Sirica overseeing the special prosecutor; which meant that Nixon’s edits of April 1974 could be compared to the originals from 1973, and constituted proof of obstruction of justice. Equally damning was the transcript of a June 23, 1972 White House conversation in which the President is heard clearly directing the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s Watergate investigation. When Rep. Wiggins of CA, up to this point a staunch Nixon defender, saw this transcript, he said “Holy smoke! It’s all over.” The tapes proved that Nixon was a liar and a criminal. Rather than go through the humiliation of public impeachment, he resigned from office within days.
Nixon was, one might say, hoist by his own petard—his paranoid insistence that everyone who came to the White House be secretly recorded. The tapes provided indisputable evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Needless to say, that taping system was quickly removed from the White House, no other president wanting to be caught in the same system. But there are other public records that might be used, such as emails and tweets and recorded public statements. These are what will be needed to impeach someone like Donald Trump. Whether they can be assembled and marshaled against the 45thpresident of the United States is still an open question. But what is clear to this observer—and, in a soft-pedaled way, to Jeffrey Engel in his Conclusion—is that what Trump is accused of in the Russia investigation and elsewhere, if proven, would definitely constitute impeachable offenses. Here are Engel’s words:
Time has already told us what the Constitution’s framers would have made of someone in power who committed the type of crime of which Trump stands accused. They feared these very things…a president “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression” James Madison warned his fellow delegates when explaining impeachment’s necessity, or “might betray his trust to foreign powers” (209).
If we think of just the most visible schemes Trump has been accused of—continuing to work for a Trump Tower in Moscow even after his inauguration; using his hotel in Washington DC as a kind of cash cow from foreign dignitaries seeking to curry favor; paying off women with whom he had sexual relations with money designated for his campaign; publicly defending Vladimir Putin after their secret meeting in Helsinki; appearing beholden to Putin in almost everything he does, inciting speculation that he is somehow compromised; presiding over an administration with an alarming number of aides and appointees already convicted or making plea deals with the Special Prosecutor investigating Russiagate; and much much more—we know that what Engels concludes hangs over this president like the proverbial sword of Damocles. That is:
The founders believed any president corrupted by foreign influence should be impeached. Period (210).
Amen to that, I say (and so, I believe, will anyone reading Impeachment). And may it be soon.