After last Thursday’s House vote to advance the inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) labeled the proceeding a “soviet style impeachment process” and effectively accused democrats of hijacking the 2020 election, usurping the people’s democratic rights because of their sour grapes over the 2016 presidential election results.
“Clearly,” he said, “there are people that we serve with that don’t like the results of the 2016 election. That’s their prerogative. But the country next year will be deciding who our president is going to be. It should not be Nancy Pelosi and a small group of people that she selects that get to determine who is going to be our president.”
This idea that congress, instead of pursuing impeachment, ought simply to let the people decide Trump’s fitness for the presidency in 2020 and that anything less than allowing the people to determine who wields the power of the highest office in the land would compromise our democracy, has gained some currency in the national conversation.
Does this idea have any validity when measured against the principles, processes, and procedures spelled out in detail by the nation’s founders when they imagined our constitutional democracy?
Is it fair and historically grounded in American political thought to characterize the impeachment process the democrats have begun as an un-American, “soviet style” act?
On the surface, I suppose, letting the people decide if they want Trump as our president resonates with Abraham Lincoln’s famous, though certainly somewhat shorthand, characterization of the American political experiment as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
How far does the power of the people in our constitutional democracy extend? Do the people have the unabated right and prerogative to elect somebody to office who the body of elected representatives knows to pose a threat to national security, who consorts with foreign powers for his own enrichment and to preserve his own power, and who abuses the power of the office?
Do these elected representatives have any decision-making authority in such a situation? Or does the will of the people override all?
Put another way, does democracy mean the people can elect a criminal?
To the great chagrin of the GOP, whose members have been doing their best to fill Americans’ minds with distorted renderings of what constitutes democracy, the answer to this question is that while the people can potentially elect a criminal to the presidency, our founders designed a constitutional democracy with an intricate system of checks and balances.
And this system, constructed in the Constitution, subjects the people’s electoral power to checks and balances as well.
The impeachment powers granted to congress are just such a check and balance.
Think about it, if members of congress possess intelligence and evidence substantiating that the person occupying the nation’s most powerful office has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” are they supposed to sit back and potentially let a criminal, a possible enemy of the nation and its people, have a chance to continue to wield the authority of the presidency?
If a president is impeached, he or she is barred from holding political office again. That is the check. The people are prevented from having a chance to elect someone the Senate convicts of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The founders created this check and balance precisely to institutionalize a reminder for the nation and the president that nobody is above the law, to discourage abuses of power, and to provide some means of investigating and addressing gross presidential misconduct.
In debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, North Carolinian William Davie insisted on the necessity of the impeachment clause as “an essential security for the good behaviour” of the president,” worrying that otherwise “he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.”
James Madison, who himself would one day be president, foresaw that because of inherent power cloaking the office, “corruption was within the compass of probable events … and might be fatal to the Republic.”
Our founders understood what the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice neglected to ponder seriously when it issued a memo in 1973 declaring that a sitting president could not be indicted while in office, in part because an indictment would interfere with the president’s ability to do the job.
Think about it, though.
If the President is a criminal and, to put it more particularly, something of a suspected traitorous criminal who, a powerful accumulation of evidence suggests, may very well be involved in not only abusing and exploiting his office for personal gain at the expense of the American people but doing so by working with foreign powers, even enemy states, to the grave detriment of our national security, democratic institutions, and outright sovereignty, are we really to sit back and say, well, we really can’t bother him because he’s just too busy and the job too demanding?
I guess the thinking is if he’s too busy committing crimes, undermining the country, aiding and abetting foreign powers, we’ll just have to wait him out until his term is over because an equally problematic and complicit Republican congress wants to abet him in this subversion of our sovereignty and refuses to impeach him.
The criminal enterprise the Presidency has become is just too demanding and time-consuming, and the President could not properly attend to this work of governing the nation into the ground, or worse, into the throes of a foreign power, if he were to be distracted with an indictment.
The Office of Legal Counsel, though, did not override the authority of congress to impeach the president.
This process, outlined in the Constitution, is not a violation of democratic principles; it is a realization of them, shoring up the system of checks and balances that puts necessary limits on the people’s electoral power as well.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.