The Case to Impeach Trump for Bigotry
On May 16th, Representative Al Green, as he has many times since 2017, stood on the House floor to implore his colleagues to initiate impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump, this time with a copy of the Mueller report in hand and an American-flag tie on his collar.
â€śSince [the reportâ€™s] release, we have had many persons, many of whom are members of this august body, say that they have concluded that the President has committed impeachable acts,â€ť Green said. â€śSome have gone so far as to say he should be impeached. Iâ€™m one of them. We also have hundreds of lawyers, many of whom are prosecutors and former prosecutors, say that if anyone else committed the offenses outlined in this document, the Mueller report, that person would be arrested and prosecuted.â€ť
â€śHence,â€ť he continued, â€śone can logically conclude that since this document addresses acts by the President, and since the President is not being prosecutedâ€”since the House of Representatives has not moved to impeach the Presidentâ€”one can conclude that the President is, indeed now for some twenty-nine days, above the law.â€ť
Although most Democratic leaders and most House Democrats continue to resist calls for impeachment, more and more prominent Democrats, out of frustration with the Administrationâ€™s refusal to coĂ¶perate with the Houseâ€™s investigators, are inching away from the Party lineâ€”either in support of impeachment on its own merits or in support of beginning impeachment hearings as a legal strategy to sustain subpoena requests.
In both cases, the Mueller reportâ€™s description of ten actions by President Trump that may have constituted obstruction of justice is central to their argument. But there are other arguments for impeaching Trumpâ€”ones that Democrats, even those most critical of the Presidentâ€™s conduct in office, are curiously reluctant to make.
â€śI think the strongest case is his bigotry and policy,â€ť Green told me in a recent conversation. â€śWe shouldnâ€™t allow a bigot to continue to hold the highest office in the land. We hear people daily on television who call him a racist, a bigot, who say heâ€™s unfitâ€”people in his own party have said heâ€™s unfit to be the President. And the people of this country gave Democrats an overwhelming majority.â€ť
â€śI just donâ€™t see how we can have this overwhelming majority understand that he is a bigotâ€”that he has infused his bigotry into policyâ€”and not at some point decide that there ought to be a vote to impeach him for the bigotry and policy,â€ť Green continued. â€śAnd, by the way, you donâ€™t need to conduct hearings on this, because the President does it in plain view! Itâ€™s out there!â€ť
In two impeachment resolutionsâ€”in December, 2017, and January, 2018â€”Green gave evidence: Trumpâ€™s efforts to block immigration and travel from Muslim-majority countries, his ban on transgender people serving in the military, his remarks about â€śvery fine peopleâ€ť among the white-nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, and his complaint about immigrants coming from â€śshithole countries.â€ť â€śIn all of this,â€ť Greenâ€™s January resolution closes, â€śthe aforementioned Donald John Trump has, by his statements, brought the high office of President of the United States in contempt, ridicule, disgrace and disrepute, has sown discord among the people of the United States, has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President, and has betrayed his trust as President of the United States to the manifest injury of the people of the United States, and has committed a high misdemeanor in office.â€ť
Greenâ€™s preferred rationale for impeachmentâ€”bigotryâ€”is grounded in the history of the process. The first Presidential impeachment, Andrew Johnsonâ€™s, in 1868, centered on Johnsonâ€™s violation of a law called the Tenure of Office Act. But the actual impetus for the impeachment effort, as Brenda Wineapple notes in a new book on the episode, â€śThe Impeachers,â€ť was Johnsonâ€™s leniency toward Southerners intent on preserving white supremacy and thwarting Reconstruction.
â€śThere were people who wanted that man impeached because they really thought he was hindering and betraying the cause of the war,â€ť Wineapple told me. â€śThey were outraged because he was restoring the country to what it was, and they had a vision of the futureâ€”what it could be.â€ť
That moral conflict was sublimated into a fight over the Tenure of Office Act, which Republican majorities in Congress had passed, over Johnsonâ€™s veto, in an effort to prevent Johnson from firing the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, who was then implementing Reconstruction and supported aggressive measures. Johnson ultimately fired Stanton in early 1868, and most of the articles of impeachment are directly related to this dismissal. But the procedural case that emerged against Johnson was preceded by broader indictments of his conduct.
â€śOne of the so-called Radical Republicans called for Johnsonâ€™s impeachment early in 1867, and the actual vote on impeachment didnâ€™t happen for almost a year,â€ť Wineapple said. â€śSo impeachment had been in the minds of several of the Radical Republicans early on precisely because of the way they interpreted the Constitution and the conditions for impeachment. And they interpreted it broadlyâ€”the abuse of power. He had obstructed Congress. But there was nothing that was an actual legal misdemeanor or what could be called a high crime or high misdemeanor.â€ť
That changed once Johnson finally dismissed Stanton. But, as Green noted in our conversation, the eleven articles of impeachment passed by the House against Johnson went beyond his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The tenth quoted at length from speeches Johnson that had made in a raucous tour to shore up his Presidency, including one in which he accused Republicans of having provoked the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, in which forty-four African-Americans were killed by white Democrats. â€śEvery drop of blood that was shed is upon their skins, and they are responsible for it,â€ť Johnson said. With such comments, the tenth article charged that Johnson, â€śunmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof,â€ť had attempted â€śto bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.â€ť
Johnson was not removed from office. It is highly unlikely that a sufficient number of Senate Republicans would ever vote to remove Trump. The Democrats have pursued an intensely legalistic approach to confronting the Trump Administration, in a quixotic hope that enough damning objective evidence might be found to force Republican voters and Republicans in Congress to acknowledge the Presidentâ€™s wrongdoing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as much in March: â€śImpeachment is so divisive to the country that, unless thereâ€™s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I donâ€™t think we should go down that path.â€ť
But the fact that an impeachment absent Republican support would be divisive and lead to Trumpâ€™s acquittal does not mean that impeachment would be futile. The ultimate judges of the evidence presented in a trial would be the American people, not the Presidentâ€™s apologists, who would be forced, during an election season, to defend conduct that the majority of the public might find indefensible. We can see impeachment in the way that many Democrats have been framing itâ€”as a legal process analogous to a trial in the criminal-justice system, where the outcomes are respected because the process is considered impartialâ€”or we can see it, instead, for what it really is: a quasi-legal but ultimately political, and perhaps moral, exercise.
Additionally, the fear that impeachment may weary voters and cause a backlash that might ultimately help Trump does not seem to be terribly well founded. Two months ago, before the release of the Barr letter, before the release of the Mueller report, and before triumphant hoots of vindication on the collusion charge from the President and his allies, Trumpâ€™s average approval rating in polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight was at just over forty-two per cent. It is now at forty-one per cent. If it was true that constant coverage of Democratic investigations and claims of exoneration from the President would bolster his standing in an impeachment process, one might expect those things to have boosted his numbers somewhat already. They have not.
Politics aside, there is also for Democrats the possibly naĂŻve and certainly quaint question of whether impeaching Trumpâ€”a President potentially implicated in obstruction of justice by a special counselâ€™s investigation, regularly accused of racism and bigotry, and characterized even by conservatives as unfit for the Presidency in various other waysâ€”is the right thing to do, and if itâ€™s worthwhile, even if it seems politically unpopular. Thatâ€™s a question that historians of our political moment and the generations ahead are sure to take an interest in, even if the Democratic Party does not.