A House vote to impeach President Trump appears inevitable. So how can the country be spared the further division that would come from a wrenching impeachment trial? One solution would be for House Democrats and Republicans to take an unprecedented step in American history: Adopt a joint resolution censuring the president for improper conduct. Such an action would put presidents on notice that manipulating foreign governments to extract personal political gain is unacceptable. In return, Democrats would agree to drop impeachment articles.
Censure is neither endorsed nor prohibited by the Constitution, which makes it a good escape hatch. And it’s not a completely novel idea. Former Presidents Ford and Carter, two great public servants of different political stripes, courageously advocated for censure in December 1998 to ward off a trial in the Clinton case. The country would have been better off if Democrats and Republicans had embraced the idea.
Today, such a deal has something to offer both sides. Democrats would get a partial win through a formal, bipartisan rebuke of the president. They could then free themselves to focus on issues central to the 2020 election.
Republicans would get a partial win as well: They would cauterize the wound and eliminate the risk of more bleeding at a Senate trial. In doing so, they would deliver a significant gift to the White House — because no president, including Donald Trump, wants to be impeached and have that permanent asterisk next to his name.
Of course, there are things that would cause each side to bristle at a censure deal as well. Democrats would be retreating from a path applauded by many of the party’s most faithful supporters. Republicans would be acknowledging publicly that the man heading the Republican ticket in 2020 made a serious error of judgment.
If those factors make it impossible for House members to hammer out such a deal, the Senate should at least take action to limit the disruptiveness of an impeachment trial by adopting streamlined procedures to wrap up the trial swiftly. Each side should be given only a few days to lay out its case, without a parade of witnesses, after which either side could file a motion to dismiss that would require a simple up-or-down vote. The facts in this case are not in dispute, after all. Nothing is gained by prolonging the national agony.
For a template of how to structure the trial, the Senate should look to “S. Res. 16,” which was quietly brokered during the 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton by then-Republican majority leader Trent Lott and Democratic minority leader Tom Daschle. This oft-overlooked resolution, which placed guardrails on the Senate trial, ensured it was conducted in an evenhanded, efficient and statesmanlike fashion.
A full-blown impeachment trial in the Senate -- during which senators would be virtually chained to their chairs — would be a bruising, messy ordeal. It would nearly incapacitate all three branches of government. The chief justice of the United States, who presides, would be dragged away from conducting the Supreme Court’s vital business. The legislative and executive branches would be dangerously distracted.
The impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson turned into a nine-week public circus. The five-week Clinton trial exhausted the country and solidified the partisan toxicity that still poisons our nation. In the Trump case, both parties will try to wreak political havoc by calling witnesses (e.g. Hunter Biden, the whistleblower, Rudy Giuliani, Trump himself) to bloody their opponents for 2020. Nothing good would come from an unchecked proceeding.
Trump’s conduct in seeking to subvert U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine to damage a political rival and help himself in next year’s election was bad stuff. Indeed, it falls squarely within the zone of impeachable offenses imagined by Alexander Hamilton and other framers.
But impeachment is a political process, not a criminal inquest. The House Democrats, as they march toward concluding their hearings, need to take a cold, sober look at public opinion. Barring a significant shift in which a number of Senate Republicans defect from the president, Democrats should ask themselves: Why on earth are we doing this?
The House may have legitimate grounds to impeach Trump. But the ultimate question is whether the president’s conduct warrants removal from office. Reasonable minds can differ on that, whether for logical or partisan reasons.
One mitigating factor is that the miscarriage of justice was never consummated: After the scheme was made public, Ukraine ultimately got its funds without being forced to investigate the dealings of Hunter Biden. Ironically, the whistleblower may have saved Trump from being removed from office.
Any compromise short of convicting the president will be a bitter pill for Democrats to swallow. But an outcome that rebukes Trump will rankle Republicans, too. Allowing each side to win a little and lose a little with a censure or an expedited Senate trial may be the best outcome we can achieve.
Moreover, both sides would have one reason for justifiable pride: They would have performed their constitutional duties without burning down our house of government.
Whatever Congress does or doesn’t do, the American public will serve as the final jurors when they head to the polls in November 2020. And history, once written, will record the winner.
Ken Gormley is president of Duquesne University and the author of books on Watergate, the Clinton impeachment and presidential power.