Why We Must ImpeachRoundup
tags: Sean Wilentz, impeachment, Impeach, Trump
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American History at Princeton University.
With a single telephone call, Donald Trump betrayed the presidency in ways almost unimaginable until that moment. During the call, he attempted to pressure a foreign leader to help him smear and destroy both a chief political opponent and that opponent’s political party to benefit himself in a presidential election. This offense differs from all his other transgressions, venal corruptions, and daily degradations of the office. It is an attack on the foundations of our republic, turning diplomacy into a weapon of personal and partisan political power. The nation’s founders understood, having fought a revolution against monarchy, that no government of the people was invulnerable to such egregious abuses of power. They were particularly concerned, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that a president, through “cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” might help “foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” In their wisdom, they created a mechanism to halt this disloyal corruption in its tracks: impeachment.
Impeachment is a severe measure of last resort, which ought to be used only in the most extreme cases. In the United States, the voters are supposed to decide who governs. That’s what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they formed a new government in which, at every level, ultimate sovereignty lay in “We, the People.” Elections legitimately won cannot be illegitimately undone at the whim of a faction or party. They should only be undone by throwing the bum out at the next election.
What happens, though, if a president uses the powers of office to disrupt the next election? What if that president does so by brazenly enlisting the aid of a hostile foreign power? Or if he does so by trying in secret to extort cooperation from a foreign ally threatened by that same hostile power? What if the president has denied the existence of an ongoing systematic cyberattack from the hostile power, which every U.S. intelligence service calls a clear and present threat to our democracy? What if the actions of that president raise urgent questions about the legitimacy of the next election and cast a darker cloud over how he gained the office in the first place?
There have been earlier impeachments and interferences with democratic institutions in our history, but nothing like this one. In this, as he likes to say, Trump truly stands alone. He has assaulted American democracy, claimed he has the authority to do so, and dared anybody to do anything about it, dismissing with contempt Congress’ clear constitutional authority to oversee and check the executive branch. He thinks he can use the office of the presidency as a personal instrument, along with private emissaries, to desecrate the rule of law and then protect himself from the consequences. He even declares in public that he is the law, claiming that, according to Article II of the Constitution, “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Not even the most corrupt and criminal of our previous presidents has tried to pervert our most sacred institutions as openly as Trump has.
At the dawn of the republic, during the troubled 1790s, the incumbent administration of President John Adams took extraordinary actions against a mounting opposition led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, arguably interfering with national politics more directly than Trump. By signing the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Adams outlawed public criticism of himself or any member of Congress. More than 20 Republican newspaper editors went to jail, as did a Vermont congressman. Yet as Congress had initiated the new laws, there was never a question of impeaching Adams. What Jefferson called “the reign of witches” would end only when Adams very narrowly lost re-election to the Virginian in 1800.
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