The impeachment arguments against President Donald Trump should be disturbing to American voters, as they have the most to lose if he is not punished for attempting to use foreign leaders and the apparatus of foreign policy to gain an advantage over his domestic political rivals. The United States system has worked well enough so that impeachment—a vote by the House that triggers a trial in the Senate—is not a common occurrence. No President has been removed from office by the Senate; two have been impeached by the House; and one voluntarily resigned to avoid impeachment and removal. But this is likely a time it is needed for the protection of the people.
Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868 in the midst of battles with Congress over post-civil war reconstruction policies, but his opponents were unable to muster the 2/3 Senate majority needed to remove him. Richard Nixon was the subject of three articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee including obstruction of his re-election committee’s break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate, misuse of federal law enforcement and intelligence for his political ends, and the refusal to comply with Committee subpoenas. Sound familiar? Nixon was on his way to impeachment and likely removal when he resigned.
William Clinton, who sexually harassed a White House intern, was impeached by the House but not removed by the Senate.
Now there is Donald Trump, who is accused of pressuring foreign governments, using the United States’ foreign affairs apparatus for political advantage, and refusing to comply with Committee subpoenas to help him beat his domestic political opponents. Like Nixon’s behavior, Trump’s actions are first and foremost a threat to voters.
The Framers of the Constitution Granted to Voters the Power to Choose Representatives, But Not the Power to Instruct
When the Framers gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new system of government in light of the failure of the Articles of Confederation, they had few illusions about human nature. They expected those with power to abuse it, and that men would destroy the system of representative democracy in favor of their own ends if they could. They also knew that it is difficult to train the focus of the powerful on the common good.
Their methodology was experimental and mechanical, with the image of a clock as their guiding image. They looked to interlocking checks and balances to achieve two goals: stymy the corrosive will to power that subverts public ends to selfish goals and find mechanisms to force elected representatives to consider the larger public good. Thus, after much debate, they designed a system of three federal branches, enduring (though pared down) state power, and a ban on forcing any member of the government to swear allegiance to any particular faith, or faith at all. Certain rights were guaranteed to the people, and they were given one important role: voters choose the people who will represent them.
It is important to remember what the Framers did not give the people: there is no right to instruct. They did consider giving voters a mechanism to tell their elected representatives how to vote on the issues of the day, but that idea was soundly rejected. Rather, when we vote, we are delegating all lawmaking power to the President and members of Congress. It is a hand off of power intended to increase our collective good.
Thus, once the people exercise their right to choose the President and the members of Congress, they cannot direct them on policy during the term of representation. To be sure, they can communicate their opinions, and that is why the First Amendment’s free speech and press clauses are so important, but they can’t force their senators, representatives, or President to take any particular stand on any issue.
The theory is that elected representatives need to be free from mob rule to choose the common good. At the same time, the system does require people of good will and capacity to make the system work.
The Constitutional System Depends on Elected Representatives Who Put the Nation’s Good Ahead of their Personal Ambitions
Once the Constitution was drafted, James Madison despaired over whether it could succeed, because there would be too few virtuous men to fill the positions of power. Instead, those elected would find ways around the checks and balances, and make the government their personal base of power. While his fears were justified, America’s representative democracy has survived for over 230 years. If fully supported by the facts, Trump’s actions—to coopt foreign governments to weaken his domestic political opponents and to deceive the American public—are the quintessential corrupt behavior Madison feared.
I recount this brief history to make two points.
The Allegations Against Trump Require Representatives and Senators to Act in the Interest of the Voters, Period
First, the magnitude of what President Trump is accused of doing with Ukraine cannot be overstated. If Presidents can use the federal government’s extraordinary powers we have delegated to them to alter election results, to enlist foreign governments to assist in misleading the American people, and to drive Americans to vote based on false premises, the people have lost the one true power they have in the system.
At the same time, it is worth remembering the Framers’ pragmatic and factual assessment of humans holding power: they abuse it, and we have not yet imagined all the ways that our elected representatives could game the system to engage in self-dealing. If we do not rein in Trump’s forays into cheating the electoral process, someone else, even worse, will pursue new ways to shut down the power of the people and tyrannize us.
Second, the members of the House of Representatives and the Senators owe us at the very least their independent judgment of what is at stake at this pivotal moment in history. They shouldn’t jump to conclusions, and neither can they legitimately parrot talking points from their political parties or the compulsively tweeting subject of the investigation. They must rise above their obsession with re-election, the never-ending polls, the framing of the facts by others, and pursue the truth with zeal, follow the logic, and if the President has in fact attempted to steal fair elections from the people, our elected representatives must remove him.
Every single day they awaken during this crisis, representatives and senators need to be reminded: this isn’t about them; it’s about us.