Opinion

It’s Too Hard to Remove an American President

Trump’s likely acquittal raises the bar even higher.

Donald Trump James Mattis
American president Donald Trump and his defense secretary, James Mattis, arrive for a NATO summit in Brussels, July 12, 2018 (NATO)

If Donald Trump’s allies in the Senate vote to acquit him next week, they will prove it has become too hard to remove a president in the United States.

Trump withheld congressionally mandated aid from Ukraine to coerce the country into investigating the son of his Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden. Trump broke the law and abused his power to help his reelection.

Yet not a single Republican member of Congress voted to impeach him. Not a single Republican senator is expected to vote to remove him from office.

Precedent

Pundits and legal scholars have been debating whether or not Trump’s actions fell under the “high crimes and misdemeanors” for which the Constitution says a president can be removed.

But this debate — about the intentions of the men who framed America’s Constitution a quarter millennium ago — misses the point, which is that Trump’s acquittal sets a precedent that makes it impossible for Congress to vote out a president for almost any reason. (If you are interested in that debate, I recommend Gregg Nunziata’s column in The Dispatch.)

The president’s lawyers argued that blackmailing Ukraine didn’t rise to the level of an “impeachable” offense, because Trump felt his own reelection would be in the national interest. He didn’t put his own interests ahead of the country’s; he conflated the two. L’état, c’est moi.

Republicans think that’s fine.

Inappropriate

As retiring Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander — by no means a Trump toady — put it:

It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.

And that is my point: If lawmakers don’t believe they have the power to remove a president for behavior that is “simply” inappropriate, the president can get away with almost anything.

A better way

Other democracies don’t make it so hard. There is no such thing as “impeachment” in Japan or Sweden. If lawmakers there don’t believe the prime minister is doing his job, they can vote him out.

This happens all the time. Spanish lawmakers voted out the right-wing Mariano Rajoy and replaced him with the left-wing Pedro Sánchez in 2018. Austria’s parliament voted out Sebastian Kurz in 2019 and voted him in again in January. Yet Europeans tend to have more confidence in their governments than Americans do in theirs.

Of course, that’s about more than how easy it is to switch leaders (and if you want more ideas for improving American democracy, click here). But being stuck with a criminal president can’t help.

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