Trump: The Monster Impeachment Created
If ever a president deserved to be removed from office it was George W Bush. With the extremely short-term perspective many people have regarding politics today, this may not be the most popular thing to say at the moment. As recently as January 2018, 54 percent of Democrats viewed Bush favorably (https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/370186-poll-majority-have-favorable-view-of-george-w-bush). They would probably raise an eyebrow and ask, “Why are you bringing up Bush when Trump is the immediate threat and so much obviously worse? After all, didn’t Michelle Obama give Bush a hug, how bad could he be?”
I was part of the movement to impeach Bush in the waning years of his second term. It seemed clear to me, as it did to former federal prosecutor, Elizabeth De La Vega, that Bush and key figures of his administration like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and others violated Title 18 US Code Section 371, which makes it a crime to engage in a conspiracy to defraud the United States, (https://www.amazon.com/United-States-George-Bush-al/dp/1583227563), which they undoubtedly did in convincing Congress and enough of the American people to give them the authority to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq. According to a March 2018 article for Salon by Medea Benjamin and Nicholas J.S. Davies, there were an estimated 2.4 million Iraqi deaths from the time of the 2003 invasion (https://www.salon.com/2018/03/19/the-staggering-death-toll-in-iraq_partner/). According to Defense Department statistics from June 2016, there were 4,242 U.S. deaths (combined KIA and non-hostile) and 31,952 wounded in action.
In the case of Bush, impeachment proved to be a useless tool for holding an out of control presidential administration accountable for its crimes. Bowing to the politics of the moment, in November of 2006 incoming House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared that “impeachment was off the table.” It was a rude awakening for me but also a valuable lesson. Impeachment may still have some utility when it comes to removing corrupt judges but when it comes to dealing with a uniquely powerful institution like the modern presidency, it has only helped to make a bad situation worse. And I suspect the trend will continue if Trump ever gets the full treatment.
Part of the problem is that most Americans don’t realize how truly ancient the impeachment process is. They may know the sainted Founding Fathers had something to do with it and that it is part of our glorious, unassailable Constitution but probably aren’t aware that the whole thing was borrowed, lock, stock and barrel from England and Medieval England at that.
The earliest recorded impeachment was of William Latimer, 4th Baron Latimer during the so-called Good Parliament of 1376. The last attempted impeachment in Britain occurred in 1848, when a Scottish MP, David Urquhart, accused Lord Palmerston of having signed a secret treaty with Russia and receiving a bribe from the Tsar in return. As long-time constitutional critic Daniel Lazare has observed, “the delegates to the Constitutional Convention took a relic of Anglo-Norman law that was headed for oblivion and made it a major instrument of congressional control.”
Radical outliers like Lazare are among the relative handful of impeachment critics. You’re far more likely to find paens like John Nichol’s 2006 book, The Genius of Impeachment. I’ve read and love a lot of Nichols’s work and this is an interesting read as well. But, unintentionally, despite his title, he actually makes a strong case for how tragically defective impeachment is as a remedy for presidential misconduct. For example, Nichols gushes over how the system appeared to work by forcing the removal of Richard Nixon from office and there is some truth to this. Though Nixon was able to resign, preventing “the Impeachment Congress from seeing the process of removal through to its logical conclusion” and was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford, for a brief period some balance was restored. Congress was able to pass sweeping campaign finance reform legislation, constrain presidential war-making power and initiate investigations into collusion between the White House, intelligence agencies and U.S. corporations to assassinate foreign leaders and subvert foreign governments. It was probably the swan song of what was left of American democracy.
But, as Nichols himself points out, the impeachment of Nixon did nothing to serve as a deterrent to future presidents and their administrations from taking actions that were even more of a threat to the system’s delicate balance than Nixon’s. A little more than a decade after Nixon’s resignation, the Iran-Contra Affair was exposed. As Lazare points out in his own book, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court and the Decline of American Democracy:
“The Iran-Contra Affair…was in some respects a replay of Watergate but many times more serious. Instead of dirty-tricks squad composed of over-the-hill intelligence agents, it featured a concerted effort by top Reagan officials to circumvent congressional control in order to funnel aid to right-wing Nicaraguan terrorists. Yet Congress’s performance a second time around couldn’t have been feebler.”
“[T]he failure of Congress to initiate an impeachment inquiry based on the facts of presidential wrong doing squandered an opportunity to restore the system of checks and balances that was under assault again.”
Then came the farce of the Clinton impeachment. As Nichols himself tells us:
“An honest assessment of the Clinton presidency, the sort that has eluded hyper-partisans of both parties, might well have found legitimate grounds for impeaching the forty-second president in Clinton’s failure to obtain congressional approval for his decision to deploy U.S. bombers and a battalion from the Army’s Eighty-second Airborne Division in the Kosovo War or perhaps in the apparent pay-to-play politics of the ‘Chinagate’ controversy that saw money from the Chinese government flowing into political accounts associated with a president who eased restrictions on the relationships between U.S. defense contractors and the Chinese military and used the powers of his office to advocate for granting China permanent most-favored-nation trading status. But Republican partisans who controlled Congress in 1998 were disinclined to hold Clinton accountable for acts that benefited the same U.S. corporations that funded their campaigns, so they fought an impeachment battle so ridiculous in its focus and intents that it diminished respect for the system of checks and balances that so desperately needed revitalization. If anything, the executive branch emerged from the Clinton impeachment fight more empowered and more likely to extend that empowerment in directions that would have been unimaginable to Republicans or Democrats of the Watergate era (italics are mine).
This was clearly the case when the Bush administration with the compliant assistance of many Democrats, used the tragedy of 9/11 to ram though the USA PATRIOT Act and initiate an illegal, preemptive war of aggression that had been decided on well in advance. Nichols reminds us that none other than Dick Cheney had been vice-chairman of the Iran-Contra investigating committee, where he had issued the dissenting opinion that, “effective foreign policy requires and the Constitution mandates, the president to be the country’s foreign policy leader.” In 2006, sounding like a fascist from the 1930s, Cheney went even further and told the Wall Street Journal that, “given the world we live in today” the president needed, “unimpaired executive authority.” John Yoo, a former law professor and deputy assistant U.S. Attorney General was tapped to provide a scholarly veneer to this “Unitary executive theory.”
Today, Donald Trump doesn’t even feel the need to find a pretense for his blatant authoritarianism. Last July, at a conference of young conservatives, he blurted out, “Then I have Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” And since the revelation of the July phone call to Ukraine’s president, Trump has been shooting off his mouth, committing multiple impeachable offenses like threatening the alleged “whistleblower” with execution, calling members of the press, “scum” and “animals,” calling for the arrest for treason of House Intelligence Committee Chair, Adam Schiff and more of such seeming lunacy. He’s either as mad as a hatter or has been made to feel he can get away with saying or doing anything he wants as if he were an absolute monarch or dictator — or maybe it’s a bit of both. Words are one thing but Trump and his administration have done much worse and he should be held accountable for all of it. If the system really worked, Trump would have been removed from office a long time ago. It’s time for some serious reflection and questioning of the system that produced this monster.