The Founding Fathers warned us. Last week, 52 Republican senators decided that even if President Donald Trump had committed impeachable offenses, he should not be removed from office. Following a shameful public cover-up masquerading as a constitutionally prescribed trial, where no witnesses were allowed to testify, Trump is now emboldened to do whatever he wants to do, regardless of its ramifications for the country.
Writing in the Federalist Papers — essentially the legislative history of the U.S. Constitution — Alexander Hamilton recognized the shortcomings of placing the responsibility for trying articles of impeachment in a political body. “… There will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstration of innocence or guilt,” he presciently observed. In fact, only Mitt Romney broke party ranks, becoming the first senator in U.S. history to vote against an accused of his party.
Of course, we House Democrats understood that we had no chance to garner the 67 votes to convict Donald Trump and remove him from office. So why, many have asked, did we go down the path we did?
Once again, we turn to the men who wrote the Constitution and included the process for impeachment of an elected president not to defy voters but to protect them from a president who abused the power they gave him. It was, Hamilton wrote, to hold officials accountable for “… offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. … they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” Implicit in their arguments was that in these cases, removal from office is the only option for preventing these officials from continuing to abuse their power.
The evidence presented by the House managers to the Senate and the nation clearly laid out the facts of the president’s abuse of power, which was the charge under the first Article of Impeachment. Trump withheld public funds intended to support Ukraine’s military defense against Russia until the Ukrainian president agreed to announce an investigation of his political opponent, Joe Biden. The facts were uncontroverted; even a number of Republican senators agreed the president had done what he was accused of doing.
The second Article of Impeachment, obstruction of Congress, charged that Trump “…has directed the unprecedented, categorical, and indiscriminate defiance of subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives pursuant to its ‘sole Power of Impeachment.’” Again, no one presented any evidence to contradict that charge. A similar charge was made in the impeachment process of Richard Nixon in 1974.
All 53 Republican senators decided that Trump’s actions as charged in the second Article did not warrant his removal from office.
Given the clear and uncontroverted evidence supporting the two charges, Democrats in the House felt we had no choice but to send the Articles to the Senate. Indeed, most of us concluded that if these offenses against the “public trust” did not deserve impeachment, the impeachment provision in Article 1 of the Constitution would be irrelevant and ought to be removed. A majority of Americans, according to multiple national polls, agreed with our decision.
Many people have reasonably asked why we did not send more charges to the Senate. For example, by intentionally creating the conditions to use the presidency to profit off foreign governments, Trump has been in clear violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans personal enrichment while in office, for his entire term. So when Republicans say Democrats have been looking to impeach Trump from day one, it’s worth remembering — that’s the day he started defying the Constitution.
Additionally, Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 election campaign concluded that President Trump committed 10 different actions that constituted criminal obstruction of justice. Because of Justice Department policy, Mueller did not believe he could indict the president for those crimes.
The House considered sending Articles of Impeachment covering these offenses, but it concluded that the findings of the Mueller Report had been so distorted by Attorney General William Barr and Republican deniers, that the case against Trump would have become too confusing.
While we reached a decision that the charges we made were the most easily understood by the public, the additional charges considered represent a long-running pattern of abuse of power by Donald Trump. This president, who has never been held accountable for his behavior in his entire life, has demonstrated repeatedly that he does not believe he is bound by precedent, tradition, law or standards of morality.
So, while we in the House leveled only two charges at the president, I think it is safe to say that his consistent abuse of power, largely for personal benefit, was a major factor in the decision to impeach the president at all.
Over the past few years, I have told all who would listen that I had never before been afraid for the future of our democratic system as I have been with Donald Trump in the White House. On a daily basis, he assumes power to himself and his administration in plain sight, and sometimes more subtly. Most of these offenses will never be known to the general public, and I dare say would probably not concern or alarm a lot of people, particularly Trump supporters. But they are unquestionably unraveling the fabric of our government.
Two years ago, I was discussing this ominous development with David Obey, a former colleague from Wisconsin who served in the House for 42 years. “Remember John,” he said to me, “democracy doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.”
Judging from President Trump’s unchastened reaction to the impeachment process, that happy ending now seems more and more in doubt. What I’ve learned from this impeachment process is that, for the sake of our democracy, Americans must recognize the growing cancer in our democracy and finally hold Donald J. Trump accountable this November. •
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is now chairman of the House Budget Committee.