DANIEL VAUGHAN: If Dems want impeachment, they need votes – not tweets

September 27, 2019

When we’re talking about impeachment, it’s impossible to disentangle the politics from any adverse actions by the president.

That’s not a bug in the system; it’s a feature. Impeachment is a political action, not just a legal one. The main legal component to impeachment is that aside from an election, it’s the leading way to remove a president from office — but everything else about impeachment is a political calculation.

We get the impeachment clause from Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution. It’s a brief passage that says: “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.”

Aside from treason or bribery, the rest of the clause is purposely vague to leave the issue of impeachment up to Congress.

As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 65, high crimes and misdemeanors were meant to encompass a broader range of  “misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” It’s an abuse or violation of public trust that’s so bad that Congress says punishment cannot wait until the next election.

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated this very point, with some saying elections were checking the executive enough, while others actively advocated for the impeachment power, like Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry, who said: “A good magistrate will not fear [impeachments]. A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”

The political currents of impeachment are underscored by the way the Constitution divides that power up to Congress. Article I, Section 2, says the House of Representatives “shall have the sole power of impeachment.”

Article I, Section 3, gives is the Senate “the sole power to try all impeachments,” and lays out the procedures the Senate must follow, including requiring a two-thirds majority vote for a conviction.

So while there is a legal element in that the Senate tries the case of impeachment against the president, it’s still a political body, and impeachment comes down to whipping votes together. The same is true in the House.

Both chambers decide impeachment by referendum, which means that if you have enough votes, you could legally impeach the president for anything the representatives and senators could imagine.

And that’s why, for now at least, it’s telling that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hasn’t held any votes on the topic of impeachment. For all the grandiose speeches detailing impropriety, Pelosi hasn’t done anything new. Even Politico has called her bluff on this point, reporting:

In a closed-door meeting earlier in the day, Pelosi described to Democrats what would happen next: The six House panels investigating Trump would compile evidence against him and share it with the House Judiciary Committee, which would then decide whether to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House. There is just one problem: All of that had already been in motion since July.

As they said, everything has changed — except that it hasn’t. We’re in the same spot, legislatively, that we’ve been in since Robert Mueller completed his investigation. Democrats are investigating Trump — but they’re still scared of actual impeachment proceedings, and even more terrified of voting on the exact issue.

The other political tell here is that Pelosi jumped on board with supporting an impeachment inquiry before the phone call readout, which the White House released on Wednesday, or the release of the whistleblower complaint, which came out Thursday.

What changed for Pelosi wasn’t what Donald Trump had or hadn’t done; it was the politics. Her caucus, particularly the hard left, wants an impeachment fight. And even though she can point to a majority of her caucus supporting an impeachment inquiry — something with little political cost — the same cannot be said for an impeachment vote.

None of this is to condone what Donald Trump did on that phone call. It’s merely to acknowledge the political realities of impeachment — it’s mostly a political process, and the politics of impeaching Donald Trump are fraught.

If it were as easy as some in the media made it out to be, Democrats would have already impeached Trump on the evidence in the Mueller report — there’s far more actionable evidence in that report than there is a five-page phone call readout or a whistleblower complaint. Mueller compiled thousands of pages of evidence, and Democrats balked at the politics of that impeachment.

Pelosi is playing a dangerous political game of chicken with her far-left base by using the word impeachment while doing none of the things to accomplish it. Sure, investigations and oversight can be used to gather evidence. But it’s doubtful they’ll learn anything more than what Robert Mueller gave them, and anything they need on this phone call has already been given to them by the president or in Rudy Guiliani media appearances.

Impeachment is a political issue, and right now, it still looks like Democrats are scared of voting on impeachment. But they can’t claim that Donald Trump is violating the law and every norm, and deserves to be ousted, while doing nothing.

Of course, doing nothing — while saying everything — seems to be the political gameplan for now. And that’s fine. But it’s not impeachment.

Impeaching a president requires action because it’s a political process, not a political speech.

If Democrats believe everything they’ve said about Trump and refuse to do anything about it, then Elizabeth Warren has a point; they’re complicit. If Democrats reject Warren’s position, then they’re saying their accusations hold less merit than their many speeches and tweets suggest.

Those are the impeachment politics they face, whether they’d like to admit it or not.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.