Benjamin Wittes: It’s Time to Begin an Impeachment Inquiry Against Trump
Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare blog explains his essay on the need to begin and impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump yesterday to Chris Hayes.
The fundamentals of impeachment are simple enough, but sufficiently abstract that you might be forgiven for thinking that serious consideration of an impeachment inquiry should remain a ways off. Article II, section 4 of the Constitution provides that the president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This last bucket of impeachable offenses is broad—but it is not formless. As Charles Black, Jr., explains in his classic 1974 handbook on the subject, some acts are not crimes but are sufficiently abusive or ignominious to render an individual unfit for the nation’s highest office. On the other hand, as one of us recently wrote in an extended meditation on Black’s analysis, crimes rise to the level of the impeachable offense specifically if they are “subversive of government or political order“ or simply so serious as to make a president “unviable as a national leader.”
The problem in applying this rubric to Trump’s conduct is not that the President’s behavior raises no serious issues to discuss under the impeachment clauses. It’s the range and diversity of behavior the House Judiciary Committee properly should be considering that overwhelm. This is true even after you exclude the merely unpleasant or in any case constrainable aspects of his behavior from the truly unacceptable ones. For instance, at this juncture we are inclined to dismiss from impeachment consideration Trump’s plain tendency towards personal enrichment, which Congress has chosen not to check. If Congress wants to do something about Trump’s obvious conflicts of interest, it has remedies well short of impeachment at its disposal. We think an impeachment inquiry is appropriate only for those blatant misuses of executive authority that no other branch of government—and apparently none of the president’s advisers—is in a position to prevent. Yet even narrowed as such, the House—when it is finally willing to do its job—has what the military would call a target-rich environment.