Special To The Washington Post
Late last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rolled out the cannon: the formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. Impeachment is the Constitution’s ultimate check on egregious abuse of power - a remedy for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The offense need not be a crime but should be a fundamental abuse of power. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65, impeachment applies to “offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or ... from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Democrats seem intent on limiting the inquiry to one clearly defined offense - Trump’s effort to use the power of his office to pressure a foreign power to intervene in our elections. Yet we shouldn’t forget about the rest of Trump’s wanton misconduct in office. It’s already clear that Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine violated the law and demand censure, if not impeachment, but they are hardly the worst of his serial derelictions of duty.
Compare the Ukraine call with Trump’s Muslim ban, his constant fanning of racial division, his indefensible policy of ripping babies from their mothers and holding them in cages at the border, or the pervasive corruption of an administration that has hosted a Predator’s Ball for lobbyists and Big Oil. Or consider what is perhaps Trump’s most destructive abuse of the public trust, which is already wreaking the greatest injuries to the society itself: his refusal to address catastrophic climate change. This dereliction of duty will surely amplify the misery of generations to come, putting at risk the country and the world as we know them. If a president mocked the threat of a foreign power that was already invading our shores, causing billions of dollars in damages with growing casualties, while posing a clear and growing danger to our very existence, he or she would face impeachment at the very least.
Yet although the founders clearly intended impeachment to be invoked only for the most serious of public abuses, the impeachment process itself virtually ensures that the indictment will focus on well-defined abuses rather than major crimes of commission or omission. The very process of building a majority willing to indict a president requires compromise with more centrist voices. A specific, clearly defined offense allows for greater clarity and for greater speed in moving the investigation and the impeachment debate forward.
The impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon (who resigned before the full House could vote on them) illustrate the point. In Nixon’s case, the Judiciary Committee’s articles of impeachment focused on the Watergate coverup. A motion to include one of Nixon’s most serious abuses - the secret bombing of Cambodia while lying to Congress that the United States was respecting its neutrality - was voted down. It was deemed too divisive and too politically fraught.
Johnson, for his part, was a foulmouthed, racist, small-minded reactionary. Like Trump, Johnson routinely insulted his opponents and systematically sabotaged the efforts of the Republican-dominated Congress to extend equal rights to the freed slaves and displace the Southern plantation elites that had led the failed rebellion against the country. His sabotage encouraged the brutal Southern reaction to Reconstruction, including terrorist attacks on newly freed blacks. But when Republicans in the House finally moved to impeach him, the need to consolidate a majority moved the inquiry to focus primarily on a clearly delineated abuse: Johnson’s replacement of War Secretary Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act.
Now as the House sets off on its impeachment inquiry, Democrats, too, will focus on the specific. We will hear a lot about Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine, about Rudy Giuliani’s antics, about how and why U.S. military aid was held up, about the conflicting impressions of diplomats and political appointees on whether Trump was demanding the “favor” of investigating his political opponent as a condition to getting the aid or visiting the White House.
But Trump’s other abuses should not be forgotten, including what is perhaps Trump’s most impeachable abuse of power: ignoring the clear and present dangers posed by climate change. Here it will fall to an independent media, politically aroused citizen movements and Democratic presidential candidates to expose and challenge the high crimes and misdemeanors that will be left out of the impeachment proceedings.