(*This op-Ed has been updated to correct and clarify remarks by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.)
As someone who opposed impeachment, I have to admit that the House Democrats were right. Impeachment proved very good for the country and even good for the Democratic Party.
This may seem an odd judgment. There wasn’t even a majority vote for removal in the Senate, let alone the two-thirds vote it would have required. President DonaldTrump is basking in a victory tour. His approval ratings are up. He has been emboldened by his acquittal to fire witnesses against him.
Democrats are in disarray.
But the moment that retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced that Trump’s actions over Ukraine were “wrong” and that House managers had proved their case with a “mountain of overwhelming evidence,” U.S. House Democrats in the House stood absolutely vindicated in impeaching Trump.
Nor was Alexander a lone voice. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., noted in a piece posted to Medium that “just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office.”
But Rubio also acknowledged that “new witnesses that would testify to the truth of the allegations are not needed for my threshold analysis, which already assumed that all the allegations made are true.”
And U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, told reporters, referring to the Republican Senate caucus, that Alexander speaks for “lots and lots of us.” Even our own U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., though loyal to the President, admits that some of President Trump’s actions were “inappropriate.”
It is true that, with the honorable exception of U.S. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, these Republican senators all eventually voted to acquit the President.
But removal was never the point of this impeachment. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asserted that the Democrats had “no choice” but to impeach Trump. But she never even hinted that removal was going to happen. In impeaching the president, the House was defending the Constitution.
It must be remembered what the country confronted in September, when the transcript of Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was released by the White House. The transcript plainly indicated that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate the Biden family and that aid to Ukraine might hinge on Ukraine’s acquiescence to Trump’s request—a “favor” Trump called it.
Yet the president insisted that he had done nothing wrong. Not only did he refer to the call as “perfect” on numerous occasions, he publicly called on China also to investigate the Biden family.
That is the conduct that Republican senators have now agreed was wrong. If no action had been taken by the House, what would have prevented Trump from continuing to hold U.S. foreign policy hostage to his personal political interests?
Those who say that the president will consider his acquittal a vindication of his conduct have not paid attention to Trump’s pattern of behavior. He blusters and retreats.
If he genuinely felt vindicated, he would have repeated his call for China to investigate the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, after his acquittal. No, while there will undoubtedly be other outrages, there will be no repetition of this particular pattern of Presidential misconduct.
Furthermore, it will eventually become clear even to Trump’s most ardent supporters that the allegations against the President were true. As the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote, no one, not even Fox news, is now “calling these senators crazy for stating the obvious.”
The impeachment may even lessen the extreme partisanship currently consuming the country. Alexander did not call the impeachment a vendetta against the President.
Alexander’s eventual vote against removal was a judgment call, arrived at over time, that took into account the upcoming presidential election. Removal in the face of this opportunity for the public to decide the matter would have required pretty extraordinary circumstances. Voting to acquit was not a vindication for Trump.
Could the Democrats have established the facts and elicited Republican agreement condemning the President’s actions without impeachment?
My colleague, Ken Gormley, a constitutional scholar and president of Duquesne University, advised the House to vote for censure instead of impeaching Trump. I agreed with his suggestion.
But, in hindsight, it probably required the constitutional weight of formal impeachment and a Senate trial to force Republican senators to publicly rebuke the president’s actions. Nothing less would have worked.
Democratic leaders might admit in private that impeachment did reinforce constitutional checks and balances. The problem for them is political. They lost and Trump won. The House did the right thing, but, as was the case with Bill Clinton, Trump looks like the winner in the polls.
But this is a misjudgment. During the upcoming presidential campaign, the Democrats’ eventual nominee is going to say, simply and directly, something like this:
“If I am elected president, I pledge that I will never ask a foreign leader to investigate an American citizen. I will leave law enforcement to the professionals in the proper government agencies. My political opponents will not have to fear retaliation by the government of the United States. That is the essence of democracy and the rule of law. And I call on President Trump to make this same pledge to the American people concerning his future conduct if he is reelected President.”
A call like this will be a political disaster for Trump.
If he accedes, he admits his own prior wrongdoing. If he refuses to make this pledge, the Democratic nominee will repeat the call every day and advertise Trump’s refusal. A statement like this will be overwhelmingly popular. And it will remind the American people that the economic policy success that President Trump proclaims is not a sufficient ground to vote for a dictator.
Should all this come to pass, and Trump loses reelection, we will have the impeachment to thank. It was a difficult political decision to impeach Trump. The acquittal has certainly helped him temporarily. But impeachment was necessary in order to protect the Constitution and will eventually be seen as politicly astute.
As usual, the right thing to do has turned out to be the best thing to do.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.