Jules Witcover: Is Trump already impeachable?

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — As Special Counsel Robert Mueller plods on with his investigation into possible collusion between President Trump and Russians in the 2016 election, doubts remain that anything definitive will come from it.

Many Democrats and other critics of the president ponder whether any information dug up will rise to the level of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” broadly cited in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, warranting his impeachment and removal from office from office.

But a longtime Texas lawyer and former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate named Barbara Ann Radnofsky argues that the Founding Fathers had in mind someone very like Trump in writing it.

In a recent Washington Post essay, Radnofsky, author of “A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment,” cites “Mad” King George III of England as the inspiration for the provision — “precisely the kind of corrupt, venal, inattentive and impulsive character they were worried about.”

She writes: “They anticipated attributes and behaviors that President Trump exhibits on an all-too-regular basis,” and that “the framers made it clear that an official does not have to commit a crime to be subject to impeachment.” They understood, she went on, “that the true threat to the republic was not criminality but unfitness, that a president who violated the country’s norms and values was as much a threat as one who broke its laws.”

The author cites many examples of Trump’s conduct in his business connections with the Russians, including “leaking state secrets to the Russian ambassador” in the Oval Office. She notes that George Mason of Virginia called for impeachment of any president “who might engage in the corrupting of electors” (which probably would be a crime in itself).

Radnofsky argues that Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey “is clearly an impeachable act,” citing James Madison, who wrote: “If the president can displace from office a man whose merits require that he should be continued in it … he will be impeachable … for such an act of maladministration.’

On another occasion, Radnofsky writes, Mason feared in a president “the abuse of the power to issue pardons.” Mason thought the president might use this power to “pardon crimes which were advised against himself,” or before indictment or conviction “to stop inquiry and prevent detection.”

Radnofsky, in making her case for the impeachment of Trump, allows herself considerable leeway for speculation. She observes that he might well pardon himself, and suggests that in “the August pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, he was signaling to the likes of former campaign aides Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn that they too might be pardoned for disregarding valid orders and laws.”

The author again cites Madison: “If the president be connected, in a suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him,” he should be impeached. And she quotes Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers that impeachment was “an essential check … upon the encroachments of the executive, and also from someone simply unable to perform the job, whether through incompetence, ignorance or incapacity.”

Radnofsky cites Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, noting that the president “cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention; he cannot roll upon another person his criminality … and he is responsible for very nomination he makes. … (F)ar from being above the laws, he is amenable to them … in his public character by impeachment.”

But as prescient as they framers were, Radnofsky says, what they “may not have anticipated was someone who epitomized so many of their fears at once — someone like Donald Trump — being elected to the presidency in the first place. They hoped that the Electoral College system would prevent that from happening. But in the event that didn’t happen, they added an additional fail-safe: impeachment. It’s now up to Congress to fulfill the framers’ vision.”

That wished-for outcome, however, still has a long way to go. Trump’s party has 52 bodies in the Senate. It takes two-thirds of the chamber’s 100 members to convict, upon impeachment by the House, and GOP disgruntlement is on the rise.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.

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