WASHINGTON — On Jan. 20, 2017, The Washington Post reported that “The effort to impeach President Donald John Trump is already underway.” Even before Trump took the oath of office that day, Democratic groups were looking for a pretext to remove him from office.
They thought they would get one from special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, Mueller found that Trump did not conspire with Russia to steal the 2016 election. But rather than capitalize on that moment of vindication, Trump decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and give Democrats the pretext they had been looking for — by asking Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden.
Democrats can’t believe their luck. Unlike Russia, this time Trump actually did something wrong. The president’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not “perfect,” as Trump repeatedly claims. A USA Today-Suffolk University poll finds that only 30% of Americans believe there was nothing wrong with the call. But the same poll finds that just 38% think it was an impeachable offense, while 21% say it was wrong but not impeachable.
That means most Americans agree with Democrats that Trump did something wrong, but only a minority believe his misconduct rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors. Worse still for Democrats, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, 53% of Americans believe that their impeachment inquiry is politically motivated. And in six key swing states likely to decide the 2020 election, voters oppose removing Trump from office by a margin of 53% to 43%, according to a New York Times-Siena College survey.
So, unless some bombshell evidence emerges to turn public opinion decisively in favor of impeachment, Trump will not be removed from office. Impeachment would be a purely symbolic act.
So why not drop impeachment and censure him instead?
There is precedent for doing so. In 1834, the Senate voted to censure President Andrew Jackson (whose portrait Trump has proudly hung in the Oval Office) over his stonewalling of a congressional investigation into Jackson’s decision to shut down the Second Bank of the United States. If Congress voted to censure Trump, it would make him only the second president in history to have been so explicitly reprimanded.
The House could easily pass such a censure resolution and might even do so with a bipartisan majority. Right now, House Republicans feel no pressure to vote for impeachment, and Senate Republicans feel no pressure to convict, because most Americans agree with them that Trump’s conduct is not impeachable. They know that, if anything, impeachment poses a greater political danger to Democrats, putting at risk 31 House seats held by freshman Democrats in districts Trump carried in 2016.
But by censuring instead of impeaching the president, Democrats could easily turn the political calculus against the GOP. The Post reports that a growing number of Republicans are ready to acknowledge that the president did use military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate the Biden family but that “the president’s action was not illegal and does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.” To oppose a censure resolution, Republicans would have to argue not just that the president’s misconduct does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense, but that there was no misconduct at all. Clearly there was, and Americans know it. Censure would put public opinion squarely on the Democrats’ side and put Republicans in a political bind.
A bipartisan censure vote would ultimately be more damaging to Trump than impeachment along party lines. The impeachment inquiry is energizing Trump voters, who believe Democrats are trying to invalidate their votes by removing Trump from office. Censure would take away that argument. It would be dispiriting to Trump’s base, especially if some Republicans joined Democrats in voting to rebuke the president. Trump would be furious at a bipartisan vote of censure.
The Senate would not be required to take up a censure resolution passed by the House, but so what? Jackson’s censure was passed by only one house of Congress. If the House censured the president, and the Senate failed to even vote on the resolution, it would look very bad for Republicans.
Will Democrats do it? Probably not. Their ravenous base wants to brook no compromise. But because impeachment will be nothing more than an act of censure anyway, why not actually censure Trump and pressure some Republicans to vote against their president? Then leave the decision of whether to remove Trump from office where it belongs — in the hands of the American people next November.
Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and co-author of former Gov. Scott Walker’s book “Unintimidated,” writes for The Washington Post: @marcthiessen.