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.
“Since [the report’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,” Green said. “Some have gone so far as to say he should be impeached. I’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.”
“Hence,” he continued, “one can logically conclude that since this document addresses acts by the President, and since the President is not being prosecuted—since the House of Representatives has not moved to impeach the President—one can conclude that the President is, indeed now for some twenty-nine days, above the law.”
Although most Democratic leaders and most House Democrats continue to resist calls for impeachment, more and more prominent Democrats, out of frustration with the Administration’s refusal to coöperate with the House’s investigators, are inching away from the Party line—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 report’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 Trump—ones that Democrats, even those most critical of the President’s conduct in office, are curiously reluctant to make.
“I think the strongest case is his bigotry and policy,” Green told me in a recent conversation. “We shouldn’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 he’s unfit—people in his own party have said he’s unfit to be the President. And the people of this country gave Democrats an overwhelming majority.”
“I just don’t see how we can have this overwhelming majority understand that he is a bigot—that he has infused his bigotry into policy—and not at some point decide that there ought to be a vote to impeach him for the bigotry and policy,” Green continued. “And, by the way, you don’t need to conduct hearings on this, because the President does it in plain view! It’s out there!”
In two impeachment resolutions—in December, 2017, and January, 2018—Green gave evidence: Trump’s efforts to block immigration and travel from Muslim-majority countries, his ban on transgender people serving in the military, his remarks about “very fine people” among the white-nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, and his complaint about immigrants coming from “shithole countries.” “In all of this,” Green’s January resolution closes, “the 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.”
Green’s preferred rationale for impeachment—bigotry—is grounded in the history of the process. The first Presidential impeachment, Andrew Johnson’s, in 1868, centered on Johnson’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, “The Impeachers,” was Johnson’s leniency toward Southerners intent on preserving white supremacy and thwarting Reconstruction.
“There were people who wanted that man impeached because they really thought he was hindering and betraying the cause of the war,” Wineapple told me. “They were outraged because he was restoring the country to what it was, and they had a vision of the future—what it could be.”
That moral conflict was sublimated into a fight over the Tenure of Office Act, which Republican majorities in Congress had passed, over Johnson’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.
“One of the so-called Radical Republicans called for Johnson’s impeachment early in 1867, and the actual vote on impeachment didn’t happen for almost a year,” Wineapple said. “So 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 broadly—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.”
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. “Every drop of blood that was shed is upon their skins, and they are responsible for it,” Johnson said. With such comments, the tenth article charged that Johnson, “unmindful of the high duties of his high office and the dignity and proprieties thereof,” had attempted “to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States.”
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 President’s wrongdoing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as much in March: “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that, unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path.”
But the fact that an impeachment absent Republican support would be divisive and lead to Trump’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 President’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 it—as a legal process analogous to a trial in the criminal-justice system, where the outcomes are respected because the process is considered impartial—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, Trump’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 naïve and certainly quaint question of whether impeaching Trump—a President potentially implicated in obstruction of justice by a special counsel’s investigation, regularly accused of racism and bigotry, and characterized even by conservatives as unfit for the Presidency in various other ways—is the right thing to do, and if it’s worthwhile, even if it seems politically unpopular. That’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.