In the mid-1780s, the United States of America faced a problem.
The 13 former English colonies had won a revolution against their mother country, but now were confronting serious difficulties in moving forward as a unified nation. The Articles of Confederation binding the former colonies together were proving woefully inadequate as a basis for government.
So, in 1787, representatives from across the fledgling nation gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new organizational plan, which would become known as the Constitution.
The framers realized that they needed a strong elected executive to lead the nation and make certain that the laws passed by the new nation’s legislators were executed faithfully.
But how strong? The Americans had just thrown off the yoke of an English king. The last thing they wanted was an American king, or anything like that.
Accordingly, they tapped into traditional English law for the concept of impeachment: that an official who seriously stepped out of bounds could be removed from office.
“The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” reads Section 4 of Article II, the article that defines the office of the presidency.
By “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the framers of the Constitution were not referring to simple violations of criminal law, but rather crimes against the state.
Impeachment of a president has been rare, occurring just three times in the history of the nation. President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, and President Willliam J. Clinton was impeached in 1999; neither impeachment resulted in conviction.
President Richard M. Nixon, who in 1974 was about to be impeached by the House and faced almost certain conviction in the Senate, resigned instead.
Now we have arrived at the third presidential impeachment in the nation’s history: that of President Donald J. Trump.
The House approved two articles of impeachment: one for abuse of power, the other for obstruction of Congress. The trial in the Senate began Tuesday.
Readers of editorials in The Bourne Enterprise probably have gathered that we are not fans of President Trump.
At a time when the nation sorely needs reunifying and rebuilding, he has pursued divisiveness with a vengeance. He pursues policies that are ill thought-out; he has taken a wrecking ball to relationships with allies who helped preserve the post-World War II peace; and he has cast the democratic norms of his office into a sea of obnoxiousness and cruelty.
All true: and yet not grounds for impeachment.
But his July 25 telephone call with the president of Ukraine, asking him to launch an investigation into one of his domestic political rivals, former Vice President Joseph Biden, and linking that request to nearly $400 million in pending military aid desperately needed by Ukraine, is a slam-dunk case for impeachment and conviction.
President Trump’s related stonewalling of Congressional requests for witnesses and documents related to the Ukrainian episode also represents a serious constitutional violation.
Conventional wisdom, however, holds that he has such a grip on the Republican party, which controls the Senate, that he will escape conviction.
Every American citizen has the right to expect the Senate to conduct a fair, open-minded trial of the president.
Yet the Senate’s majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, placed himself and his Republican caucus in the president’s corner even before the trial started. They have made certain to defeat attempts by Democrats to bring in relevant witnesses and documents.
Still, trials can be unpredictable things. Some senators who now favor acquittal may change their minds as whatever evidence finally comes in; a more likely impetus for a change of heart would be a groundswell among their constituents toward conviction.
All the same, Mr. Trump’s presidency probably will survive this impeachment.
Perhaps he will be emboldened to engage in even more flagrant violations of his oath of office, buttressed by the knowledge that enough of the Senate is in lock-step behind him.
We hope, however, that this rare invocation of impeachment will serve at the very least as a serious shot across his bow, one that will constrain any future misadventures, and give the nation’s voters pause whether they want to return him for a second term.