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  • Josh Lewis

Impeaching Prudence

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

Over the past couple of weeks a debate has erupted within the conservative blogosphere the likes of which we have not witnessed since the French Ahmari Wars of 2019. Here is a woefully brief summary:

  • Last month, Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, sent social media ablaze with his “Trump Should Be Removed from Office” piece which argued, as the title suggests, that Trump should be removed from office.

  • The following week yours truly replied with “Should Trump be Removed from Office?” which praised Galli’s call to moral consistency and his courage for speaking out within a group likely to be hostile to his message, but ultimately concluded that Trump’s removal may not be justifiable on prudential grounds in light of current circumstances.

  • A few days later my piece was republished in The Liberty Hawk.

  • Then, in a startling turn of events, fellow blogger Scott Howard wrote a rebuttal to my argument in a piece titled “Principles Should Trump Prudence”, arguing that the president’s actions were not only impeachable, but that a principled defense of the Constitution should trump a call for prudent restraint.

  • Finally, earlier this week Justin Stapley, the founder of The Liberty Hawk, weighed in to the debate with his piece “Principles or Prudence?” which attempted to strike a balance between the views expressed by Howard and myself. His piece concluded with these words: “My view is simple, and I believe agreeable, to both the demands of principle and prudence. In impeachment, be principled, aggressive, and unforgiving of all forms of abuse. In removal, be prudent, pragmatic, and thoughtful of political reality.”

Impeachment is God’s Way of Teaching Americans about Civics

Unless you’ve been binging on a never-ending stream of Disney+ videos for the past month, you surely know by now that Trump became the third president in history to have been impeached. The House voted to impeach the president on December 18, 2019. The following day Mark Galli wrote his article arguing for removal.

Judging by a brief perusal of my social media feeds on December 19, there is at least much anecdotal evidence that a disturbing number of Americans were unaware impeaching a president did not automatically remove them from office. It is unlikely we’ll ever truly know what percentage of Americans were coming to terms with this realization—for who’d want to admit not knowing if asked by a pollster?—but if the president ever were removed from office, I’d be willing to bet it would be the same percentage of Americans who believe removing Trump from office would turn the presidency over to Hillary Clinton.

For those who would appreciate a brief trip back to their high school civics class, the House of Representatives can vote to impeach a president with a simple majority vote. This does not mean that the president is removed from office. What it means is that the Senate may then proceed with a formal trial of the findings of the House and, with a sizable two-thirds majority, vote to remove the president from office and even convict him of any wrongdoing. As Stapley eloquently expressed in his piece, an impeachment in the House followed by no trial in the Senate essentially amounts to a censure: the expression of severe disapproval with no binding consequences.

The distinction between impeachment and removal is important. Both Stapley and Howard make the point that the Founders never intended for impeachment to be the rarely used tool of congressional oversight it has become. The mere fact that only a simple majority is needed to impeach a president would suggest that the Founders had envisioned presidential impeachment occurring on a far more regular basis.

In retrospect, I may have caused some unnecessary confusion by not doing a better job at the outset differentiating between my views on impeachment and removal in my original piece. Galli was providing his argument for why the president should be removed from office and I was attempting to grapple with the possible consequences of removal. While prudence and restraint are warranted for both, I agree with Stapley’s view that we can be high-minded in our principles when discussing impeachment whereas removal warrants a bit more caution.

Removal is a big deal. It has never been done before and the closest we’ve ever come (with Richard Nixon) the president chose to resign from office instead of becoming the first president to be removed. And, while impeachment should not be taken lightly, I share both Stapley and Howard’s concerns that the House has historically shown far too little willingness to use this tool to keep wayward presidents in check. This has contributed to an ever-expanding executive branch undeterred by the threat of congressional surveillance.

At the Risk of Sounding Unoriginal: Both Sides are Doing It

It’s always an interesting thought experiment to imagine whether the Founders would have done anything different if they were alive today to see what became of the government they bequeathed us. The checks and balances embedded in the Constitution represent an ingenuously balanced system that distributes power across various branches, being mindful to give each branch the ability to keep the other in their proper lane. Theoretically.

Throughout Stapley’s piece I find myself nodding along in agreement. Until I get to here:

“A president who avoids removal but whose trial fails to acquit his character is still a president who has faced the stain of impeachment. He is still one who has had his actions laid bare to the public. And, he must face a forthcoming election with determined enemies (those who supported removal) and a public not wholly satisfied that he is trustworthy.”
“As well, a president who avoids removal and whose trial clearly acquits his character has recovered his legitimacy. The process has freed him from the cloud of uncertainty the allegations had cast upon him. And, he is now free to exercise the office as an effective and trusted chief executive.”

In my view, this sounds rather utopian given the dumpster fire that is contemporary politics. Is there any evidence Republicans in the Senate would use a potential trial to reprimand Trump’s behavior? How many Republicans in the House actually said that what the president did was wrong and dishonorable, but that it didn’t justify impeachment? Are we to believe Senate Republicans would suddenly find the courage to take the opportunity to school the American people on the importance of congress maintaining a check on the executive branch, regardless of party affiliation?

Even if the Senate did vote to retain the president but express grave disapproval of his actions, would that change anyone’s mind? Would Democrats suddenly become more passionate that Trump had to go now that a handful of GOP senators had some not-so-nice things to say about him? Would Republicans be less likely to vote for Trump. Would any American reserve judgment on what they thought of the character of any president (let alone this president) until after they’d heard the pontificating of Senators on C-SPAN?

The more likely scenario, of course, is that the Republican-led Senate avoids removal and exonerates Trump of any wrongdoing; that is, if the Senate even holds the trial at all. But Americans have seen this dog and pony show before. In the 90s a Republican-led House impeached a Democratic president only to have the Democratic-led Senate retain and acquit. Now we have a Democratic-led House impeaching a Republican president where it is all but certain the Republican-led Senate will retain and acquit. Barring some astronomically usual plot twists, we all know how this shows ends. The only open question is whether Trump will successfully defeat his eventual Democratic nominee.

We have the great misfortune of living in an era where congress only seems interested in holding the executive branch in check when it’s occupied by the other party. Ours is an age bereft of honor and statesmanship. We listen to our elected officials bring railing accusations against the other side, knowing full well that the “other side” would be doing the exact same thing if the tables were turned. This isn’t congressional oversight, it’s political convenience. This isn’t statesmanship, it’s dereliction of duty. This isn’t prudence or principles, it’s hyper-partisanship and hypocrisy.

It is true that the president has done some terrible things for which, in some alternative universe where congress took their oath to uphold the Constitution seriously, he would (and should) be impeached and removed. But it is also true that Democrats have not operated in good faith, seeking to find a way to impeach the president since the day he was elected, and have abused the surveillance powers of the state in the process. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House have made a mockery of the proceedings to the point you’d think there was nothing untoward about a president using a foreign government to get dirt on his political rival and those in the Senate are behaving as partisan jurors before the trial has even begun.

Impeaching Prudence

What are we to make of this nonsense? As I argued in my original piece, we do not have the luxury of debating political questions in the realm of pure principles. Arguments over the ideal are valuable, of course. But they are valuable only in that they help us develop better political theories and provide a roadmap for where we ought to be headed. But better politics requires that we take into account not only the ideal, but the actual as well.

The pertinent question before us isn’t whether Trump should be removed from office in some idealistic utopia because that would be like asking whether North Korea should embrace liberal democracy. The real question is whether Trump should be replaced at the ballot box. His actions are impeachable, dangerous, and insufferable. But it remains to be seen whether his eventual opponent could pose a greater threat to the republic. At the risk of making a totally disproportionate comparison that’s in no way indicative of our leaders, the question isn’t whether Kim Jong Un should be removed from power but are we ready and willing to deal with what’s likely to happen if he is.

We are in danger of impeaching prudence itself. And I do not mean the kind of prudence that asks only what is in the best long-term interests of a particular political party. I mean the kind of civic virtue necessary to maintain a society of ordered liberty. Prudence isn’t among the principles we should uphold in the realm of politics, it is THE central principle by which all other political principles are possible, as I argue over an entire blog series.

Two people can dutifully exercise prudence and walk away with different understandings of what course to take or what action is right or most advantageous. The fallibility of our nature guarantees that we will never live in a world without fierce political disagreements. But we are in danger of succumbing to a world in which all that truly matters is that we win and “they” lose, and to hell with whatever it was we were fighting about in the first place.

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