What’s at stake when a president is impeached?

Photo by Kelli Dougal on Unsplash

For only the fourth time in the history of the Republic, the American people face the real possibility that the president of the United States will be impeached and removed from office. Like you, the editors of this review are mulling over the many moral, constitutional and political questions impeachment entails. And also like many of you, we have been here before.

In the course of a century of publishing, America has editorialized twice about a presidential impeachment, in 1974 and again in 1999. In the latter case, the editors believed that congressional censure was a more appropriate form of redress for President Clinton’s offenses, which, while serious, did not in the editors’ view meet the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

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In 1974, America’s editors reached a different conclusion in the case of President Nixon, though they voiced their collective opinion rather late in the game, less than a month before Mr. Nixon resigned his office. Perhaps our forebears were being cautious. Impeachment is a very grave matter and caution is certainly warranted, as is an appreciation for historical precedent. For that reason, I took the time last week to re-read America’s editorials about both impeachments. The following is an excerpt from our editorial in the summer of 1974. Its clarity and sober judgment are needed now more than ever.


In such a situation, where so much is at stake for the moral and political ideals of our country, it is essential that we cut through the complexities and ambiguities by a return to first principles and indisputable facts.

The Presidency of the United States is a public trust, not a private domain. Any person who holds that office is under a solemn obligation to exercise its powers for the benefit of the public in conformity with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The President is accountable to the public, not only for the wisdom of the policies he advocates at home and abroad, but for the morality of his Administration. Even though elected by the people, the President has no irrevocable right to the Presidency. He can be defeated at the polls, or he can be impeached, convicted and removed from office.

A President can be defeated at the polls for many reasons, but he may lawfully be impeached only for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. The impeachment process consists of two very distinct steps: accusation by the House of Representatives and trial by the Senate. Although this process has certain analogies in civil and criminal law, it is a constitutionally unique process and must not be confused with civil or criminal trials. Impeachment, by the deliberate choice of the framers of the Constitution, is a legislative, not a judicial, function. In reaching their momentous decisions, neither the House nor the Senate is under any obligation to act exactly like a court of law.

The function of the House is to accuse or not to accuse. The function of the Senate is to acquit or convict. Clearly, the two functions are not the same and should not be governed by the same rules. The members of the House do not have to ask themselves whether there is sufficient evidence to convict. What they do have to ask themselves is whether there is sufficient evidence to justify, or even require, accusation.

The function of the accusation is to compel the President to defend himself. The question, then, before the House is whether the evidence presently available with respect to President Richard M. Nixon’s involvement in Watergate and other scandals in his Administration exonerates the President or demands further explanation and defense of his activities. To this question, it seems to us that there is only one reasonable answer: the evidence, and especially the evidence made available by the President himself, demands further explanation and defense.

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There is only one sure way to get additional evidence: impeachment. Paradoxically, impeachment is also the only sure way President Nixon can clear himself. As long as matters are allowed to stand the way they are now, there can be no public consensus as to the guilt or innocence of President Nixon with regard to deliberate obstruction of justice or equally deliberate failure to execute the laws faithfully.

What we have now is a public consensus of suspicion…. It would be a betrayal of the most fundamental American political ideals of morality and justice for Congress to permit this consensus of suspicion to fester without remedy. Impeachment has become the only way to vindicate the national honor.

The Editors

July 27, 1974

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Andrew Strada
2 weeks 5 days ago

So how long will the period of anguished soul-searching be before America comes out in favor of impeachment? Shall we set the over/under line at 30 days or 15?

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 4 days ago

12

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 3 days ago

The editorial should be about the irony of the current situation and the lack of anything worth impeachment plus the fecklessness of the Democrats and what they sre doing to the country. The house has not voted on anything. So far just a publicity stunt. There was a two year investigation which said there was no collusion by Trump while evidence indicated the Democrats of collusion with foreign countries. Let’s let the editors address that.

J Cosgrove
2 weeks 3 days ago

An interesting conjecture is will this lead to a crime by the former Obama White House if the whistleblower was a partisan activist helping to find incriminating information on Trump before the 2016 election.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 5 days ago

In my opinion, publicly calling for a foreign power to investigate an opponent is both an abuse of power, is traitorous, and constitutes grounds for impeachment. I see no other option available. But certainly, one must be extremely careful in such a tumultuous action. Donald Trump has crossed the line in full view of the world and is seemingly oblivious to it all. Such is the abuse indicative of powerful people.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 5 days ago

I am calling my representatives right now.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Christopher
If the Durham Investigation or the Inspector General’s Investigation reveals that John Brennan et al asked Italy, The Uk and/or Australia to investigate Trump /members of his campaign what do you think the penalty imposed should be? you have called such conduct “traitorous” !

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 4 days ago

These are terribly dangerous times. The Chief Spy investigating his sitting president may be considered either traitorous or possibly acting as a patriot. The spy business is like a knife fight in an alley- interesting to experience but only while watching as a movie. Most of us wouldn't have the stomach for such a career. It well may be and likely is his own ( Brennan's) abuse of power....The stability of our system must be maintained....This is our ongoing problem, so many in leadership roles, just as many individuals in so many areas of our own lives, have changed and not so as to continue to represent a common good but to implement their own personal agendas masquerading as justice. We see this with many of our church leaders also as beliefs are rarely concerned with people or salvation but are solely invested in the desired outcome of personal causes... Politics has always been dirty, inclusive of church politics. It has now devolved into an even more appalling level of personal abuse of power which has come to occur in much of our system of governance and this includes the actions of Mr. Trump as well as Mr. Brennan. Again, do you have the stomach?....But to, with great publicity, issue a call for someone (who?) of an (arguably) enemy country of the United States to investigate an opponent does great injustice to all who hold, with a realistically diminished expectation in modern times, to a belief in American values of justice, at least as an ideal. It is reckless and foolhardy and easily plays into the hands of an enemy. We become the laughingstock of a world driven by the immediacy of information and the relative social standing created by this information; we lose ever more credibility... Could one ever imagine a Richard Nixon calling on the USSR to investigate opponent George McGovern? Of course not because Nixon, warts and all, was still a patriot and not a "mad King George" type. He obeyed the tenets of our system even while in great disagreement with the outcome as impacting his own leadership... Will Donald Trump submit to our American system of checks and balances or will he disregard them? Will he use the checks and balances to maintain our way or his power? They do not necessarily represent one in the same. Of course, how this plays out remains to be seen. But anyone at all who publicly calls for foreign enemies to investigate any opponent at all has revealed himself to be an enemy of his own people, of all of the people of the United States of America and must be removed from office. There is a point where we must rise above the nature of partisan politics and ourselves become American Patriots. This time, Donald Trump has stepped too far over the line.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Christopher
I agree with much of what you say.
But will Brennan et al ever be punished if exposed?.....doubtful
Is what Brennan is reputed to have done behind the scenes more dangerous than Trump who puts his agenda and cards face up on the table?
What happens if it is proved that Obama himself knew what Brennan et al were doing?

Close elections have led to violent polarization’s...the future promises more of the same....what happens to Trump and Brennan et al will cause an even more violent reaction

Judith Jordan
2 weeks 4 days ago

Christopher Lochner---
I agree with most of your comments. I think Trump has already ignored checks and balances. The law says Congress may subpoena anyone’s tax returns, period. Congress does not need to give a reason. Trump, through the Treasury Department, refused to turn them over. There are other incidents. Trump does not know, or respect, our system of government. I used to think Nixon was so terrible…well I still do. But, he was a walk in the park compared to Trump.

Lenora Grimaud
2 weeks 3 days ago

In my opinion, the President has a duty to call upon foreign powers to investigate corruption in their own country when it involves an American, and there is good reason to suspect corruption.

J Jones
2 weeks 5 days ago

Fr Matt, thank you for this.

Michael Barberi
2 weeks 5 days ago

Impeachment must be a fair and bi-partisan proces, not based on exaggerated facts or one-sided votes in the House. If Trump truly committed high crimes, then he should be impeached by the House along bi-partisan lines. Unfortunately, the House has been conducting an "enquiry" where the party in power, the Democrats, can issue subpoenas, determine who will testify, and ask questions. The Republicans cannot call witnesses or issue subpoenas because this is not a an impeachment hearing, it is a enquiry.
On the other hand, if the House votes to impeach Trump based on 218 Democratic votes and zero or a couple of Republican votes, think about whether this process is fair and honest or an inequitable partisan attempt to undue the 2016 Presidential election and the vote of the people of the U.S.?
On the other hand, if the House impeaches Trump on a bi-partisan basis, but the Senate finds him not guilty of the House's allegations, then I wonder how this will impact the 2020 election? I guess we will have to wait for the people to tell us in November 2020.

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 4 days ago

Duplicate

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 4 days ago

Trump welcomes (demanding) a formal impeachment . The democrats don’t want that, who are you kidding....that opens them up to giving testimony subpoena power to the republicans. Bring it on, let’s dig into these guys past, how did they make all their money? where is Hunter Biden hiding? Let’s drag his butt in front of the camera. Let’s get Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary, James Comey, Clapper, Brennan et al to testify too. Right now the Democrats are trying to figure out how to get out of this mess they started. The only ones that haven’t figured it out are the Jesuits. If they aren’t smart enough to figure this out how can you trust their theological teachings? Be careful what you ask for. Hahahahaha

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 4 days ago

Presidents can also resign. Senate trials are about removal, not convictn. Impeachment is a question, not an accusation. It is up to grand juries to accuse and juries to convict.

Should Nixon have been tried? Not doing so allowed the nation to heal and it also allowed the Republican Party to avoid embarrassment, which did not prevent them from huge electoral lossses three months later.

The Senate Republicans now face the same choice. I suspect that their donors are letting them know, although given Trump's comments about his Vice President, I doubt there is a pardon in his future. Mr. Pence can also ask the Cabinet to declare him disabled. That he has not done so makes Trump's sins Pence's responsibility.

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 4 days ago

He should have been removed when he fired Jim Comey.

Judith Jordan
2 weeks 4 days ago

Even before Trump entered politics, I thought he was corrupt. However, I totally opposed impeachment of him because it would only polarize us more and his supporters would believe wild conspiracies and the “deep state” did it. However, once Trump approached Ukraine to get scandal on his political opponent, a terrible unease set in on me. It is irrelevant if there were a quid pro quo between Trump and the Ukraine, the act itself is impeachable. Then when Trump shockingly and publicly invited China to investigate his opponent, one could no longer oppose impeachment.

As one observer said, “Trump is outsourcing our democracy for his own political gain.” Inviting China to investigate, Trump has involved our most formidable and committable adversary. We are in the middle of trade negotiations with China. What is Trump going to take from the America people and give to China for this personal favor?

A paramount concern of our Founders was foreign interference in American politics and the corrupting influence on our elected officials. I remember as a young student in elementary school, the nuns spent much time emphasizing this. (I think it was because so many nuns were Irish and they wanted to warn us about England.) Sitting in the cocoon of my secure, safe life, I remember thinking no American president would ever do such a vile thing. And if any country tried that, all Americans would rise up against them. The naivety of a child.

A prominent concern of foreign interference and influence was clearly demonstrated by the Founders’ debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention and in the Federalist Papers. For those of us who tremble at the thought of impeachment, we should remind ourselves that the Founders would have impeached Trump.

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 4 days ago

Next time you read a James Martini book try substituting the word LGBQ for Trump and you won’t sound so ridiculous and hysterical

Judith Jordan
2 weeks 4 days ago

Christopher Scott---
Wow, one whole inapt sentence to repudiate my four paragraphs. Can’t you do any better than accusing me of being hysterical? That is the oldest reaction there is when a man disagrees with a woman’s statement, but he can’t deny it with facts. Try to get a grip.

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 4 days ago

Next time you read a James Martini book try substituting the word LGBQ for Trump and you won’t sound so ridiculous and hysterical

Michael Bindner
2 weeks 4 days ago

Other way around and there is still no gay conspiracy to sell out America. God bless the deep state. It seems to be biting back.

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 4 days ago

Guilty people always accuse others of conspiracy because they can’t prove their innocence. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Judith Jordan
2 weeks 4 days ago

Christopher Scott---

I don’t know if all guilty people do it. I know that Trump has sure accused lots of people of a lot of conspiracies. I have forgotten, how many Americans has Trump accused of treason when they disagree with him? I do remember when he gave his first State of the Union Address and the Dems did not applaud him, he said he thought that might be treason. You can't make this stuff up.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Judith.
Ok ...so if the Durham Investigation and the Investigation Of ISG Horowitz demonstrate that John Brennan et al ...and perhaps even Obama/Rice .....asked foreign governments to investigate the Trump Campaign and its members, what will your position be?
So far it is demonstrably clear that the 2016 Democrat Campaign paid to obtain information from foreign governments through the use of its law firm and Glen Simpson/Fusion.

Judith Jordan
2 weeks ago

Stuart---
If they broke any laws, they should be prosecuted. But if Durham comes up with nothing, the Trump supporters will turn on him and try to destroy his reputation. Remember how the Right loved Trey Gowdy and believed he could really find the goods on Hillary with the Benghazi hearings. He led the last hearing. He came up with nothing. The next day social media was filled with the Right bashing Gowdy and insisting that he “sold out” to the other side. Conspiracy lovers never run out of conspiracies.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 4 days ago

Judith
Off topic
Checkback at Olga Segura Article on history of slavery ....”No man in House Rule” confirmed as NOT in federal legislation.....your claim about forced passage by conservative is bogus.

Michael Barberi
2 weeks 4 days ago

Everyday this so-called impeachment enquiry demonstrates how polarized we are. Two intelligent political parties can read a transcript on Trump's conversation with the Ukrainian President and reach completely different conclusions. Most Americans are sick of all of this. I must be nuts because I watch this stuff but it is hard not to because that is what is being reported 24/7 by the media.

We use words like: corruption, bigotry, treason, high crimes, injustice, and play loose with one set of related facts that suits one party's narrative, and totally ignore other related facts that negates the same narrative. Does anyone believe that our U.S. politics can avoid exaggeration, partisan dishonesty and half the facts disguised as the compete truth?
The Democrats have been calling for Trump's impeachment since the day he took office. We already went through 2 1/2 years of the Russia collusion. Now another attempt to impeachment Trump will suck the oxygen out of everything until it ends with a vote in the Senate. Does anyone think that this so-called process is good for the country? Does anyone think this process is fair and unbiased? Does anyone think Clinton and the Democratic party did not use a foreign government official to write a phony document accusing Trump of colluding with the Russians to get elected? God save us.

Lenora Grimaud
2 weeks 3 days ago

I agree! When we pay respect and honor to a president, we are honoring the office of president and the American people. When we dishonor and disrespect the president, we are dishonoring the office of president and the american people. The same is true with the office of priest and pope.

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 3 days ago

You conveniently left out Bishops and Cardinals...lol. Sorry, but I don’t need to explain the accountability difference between the clergy and the office of POTUS do I ?

Chuck Kotlarz
2 weeks 3 days ago

Odd that Trump turns to communists to "keep" America great. It seems only a few weeks ago, conservative comments on AM vociferously condemned horrific murders of gazillions by communists. Murders aside, are conservatives now comfortable with a communist vision for America? Does China decide whether or not Biden runs against Trump?

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 weeks 3 days ago

Chuck
I think you missed the political point
Trump knows China will NOT investigate anything which might help Trump....China wants him to lose so they can negotiate with an easier Democrat over trade.
When China does nothing ...Trump will claim it’s because China thinks Trump is too tough and hope he loses. That will play well with those hurt by China’s trade policies ( lots of people in lots of industries).

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