Opinion: Censuring Trump? Never gonna happen

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), shown at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington in 2018, has called on the Senate to pass a resolution censuring President Trump for his actions on Ukraine.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press )

It’s been more than 100 years since the Senate took up a proposal to censure a president, and more than 185 years since the Senate approved such a resolution.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) thinks it’s time to try again. And he’s not alone. But no matter how badly President Trump’s actions relative to Ukraine cry out for an official condemnation from Congress, censure is a political non-starter that undervalues what the House has already done on the issue.

Manchin took to the Senate floor Monday to call on his colleagues to cross party lines and vote to censure Trump for pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. This would be a far easier vote for Manchin, whose state is as red as a fire engine, than it would be to support the articles of impeachment the House adopted in connection with that same behavior.


Beyond that, a resolution to censure Trump would have the advantage of needing only 51 votes, not the 67 required to convict an impeached president. As Democrats have known since Day 1, finding 20 Senate Republicans willing to convict Trump will be harder than finding 20 volunteers to test an Ebola vaccine.

Judging by the comments Republican senators have made in recent days, there could be well more than 51 votes to censure Trump, if that option presented itself. For example, here’s what Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said about Trump on Monday: “The president’s behavior was shameful and wrong.... Degrading the office by actions, or even name-calling, weakens it for future presidents, and it weakens our country.” And this is someone who’s going to vote to acquit.

The operative question, though, is whether so many Republicans want to vote on a censure resolution that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lets one come up on the Senate floor. And I don’t see that happening. It just doesn’t make sense politically.

The way things are playing out currently, Trump is sure to be acquitted by the Senate on Wednesday, with the articles of impeachment failing to obtain even a simple majority. In fact, chances are good that some Democrats will join Republicans in voting against the articles, as was in the case in the House. (Manchin may be one of them; he said Monday that he had not made up his mind yet.) Such a result would enable the president to claim not just that he was exonerated, but that the opposition to the House’s work was bipartisan.

That’s the best possible outcome for Trump. And yet it’s still not a good one; for all of history, he will be remembered as having been impeached. It’s a stain that won’t come off, no matter how long you wait to hit it with a Tide Power Pod.

Think about it. President Clinton was acquitted by bipartisan Senate votes after the House, acting almost purely along party lines, impeached him for lying about having sex with an intern. But what’s one of the first things people remember about Clinton? Some may know that he managed to achieve a federal budget surplus, or that he signed major welfare reform and anti-crime bills. But everyone knows he was impeached.

It’s a stain that won’t come off.

If the Senate censured Trump, that would make matters worse for the president by undermining his claim that the whole thing was a partisan hoax. So the pressure from Trump, his allies and his base to oppose censure would be almost as great on Republican senators as the pressure to oppose conviction. Backing a censure resolution would alienate their Trump-loving constituents, and to what end? They’ll get hammered by Democrats regardless because they didn’t vote to remove Trump.


In other words, that’s a vote no Republican really wants to take. So count on McConnell to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Things might have been different had the House censured Trump instead of impeaching him. As a group, Republican senators haven’t been so quick to parrot the arguments by Trump’s defense team as their House counterparts were. The nothing-to-see-here assertion that played so well with the likes of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) had far fewer takers in the upper body. Instead, as Murkowski’s comments indicated, the issue for many senators was whether Trump’s misdeeds were bad enough to justify removal. And the answer from almost all of them, if not every one of them, is no.

A censure resolution would let Republicans like Murkowski do some finger-wagging virtue signaling on this issue. But the ones who aren’t fully in the tank for Trump are doing that already, as senators spend the better part of two days delivering statements explaining how their vote to acquit Trump shouldn’t be seen as them endorsing the administration strong-arming an ally for political purposes.

Those statements will have to suffice. Politically, there’s no reason for Republicans to spend one more minute discussing Trump and Ukraine after they vote Wednesday to acquit him.