Saturday, 4 Apr 2020

Opinion | Congratulations, Mr. President

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The founders used broad language when they described the grounds for impeachment — the famous “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The generality of the term ensured that impeachment would be a political process, rather than a technical or purely legal one. There is no specific definition of an impeachable crime, in the way that there is a definition of robbery, assault or embezzlement.

But the founders did leave some pretty strong evidence for what kinds of offenses they were imagining. And President Trump — by seeking foreign interference in domestic politics, for personal gain — has come closer to committing those particular offenses than any president before him. He has outdone Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who were impeached, and Richard Nixon, who would have been had he not resigned.

As the legal scholars Jean Galbraith and Michel Paradis wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week:

When draft­ing the Con­sti­tution’s Im­peach­ment Clause, the Framers had a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal episode in mind. In 1649 the Eng­lish House of Com­mons im­peached King Charles I for trea­son. Charles was alleged to have un­law­fully sub­verted Eng­lish democ­racy, and the fi­nal ar­ti­cle of im­peach­ment charged that he col­luded with Eng­land’s for­eign ad­ver­saries in his cam­paign against his do­mes­tic polit­ical ri­vals …

Dur­ing the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion, Ben­jamin Frank­lin cited this ex­am­ple “of a first Mag­is­trate being for­mally brought to pub­lic Jus­tice” as rea­son to include an im­peach­ment clause in the Constitution. James Madi­son agreed, not­ing the need “for de­fending the Com­mu­nity against the incapac­ity, neg­li­gence or per­fidy of the chief Mag­is­trate,” who “might be­tray his trust to for­eign powers.”

In America’s long history, Trump appears to be the president most deserving of impeachment as the founders envisioned it. Congratulations, Mr. President.

For more: “Delegates to the Constitutional Convention devoted a great deal of attention to the legal standard — the grounds for impeachment,” Cass Sunstein, a Harvard law professor and the author of the book “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” has written in The Washington Post. “Deliberations during the founding period strongly suggest that if the grounds for impeachment are clearly established, the House is not allowed to look the other way.”

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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