The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s words can be the basis for impeachment

President Trump said on Oct. 11 that “it’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write, and people should look into it.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s attack on NBC is now a sustained attack on the press and the concept of a free press. He declared in tin-pot-dictator rhetoric: “It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write.” That’s a direct repudiation of the First Amendment in the context of threats to pull NBC’s license. That’s not merely outrageous and indefensible; it is, I would argue, one of many instances in which Trump’s words reveal an inability to carry out his oath of office.

Bob Bauer writes: “A president who is a demagogue, whose demagoguery defines his style of political leadership, is subject for that reason to impeachment.” That’s not as shocking as one might think. He reasons:

In Federalist No. 65, Hamilton defines an impeachable offense as one that inflicts “political” injury on a democratic society; it is not hard to imagine a chief executive who, by his or her speech, achieves this level of harm. An openly racist president would fall into this category. So would one who lied about the reasons for taking the country to war.
We need not rely on hypotheticals. The Nixon case is precedent on this question. The House Judiciary Committee approved an article of impeachment citing Nixon’s publicly stated falsehoods about the Watergate break-in and his actions to investigate it, as violations of his constitutional oath to take care to faithfully execute the laws and his office. There is, then, no basis for the claim that words alone cannot justify the institution of impeachment proceedings.

When we add to that Trump’s public abuse of members of his own Cabinet, members of Congress, judges, etc., we can see classic demagogic conduct. That entails, Bauer argues, “manipulation of language to attract and maintain popular support in service of the demagogue’s unbounded self-interest. The leadership function has become pathologically personalized; personal ends and ambitions are of primary importance to the demagogue. His self-interested ends justify the use of virtually any means—or at least any he could hope to get away with.” And that description truly embodies Trump’s behavior. Recall that Trump thinks members of the executive branch including the FBI owe an oath of loyalty to him personally rather than to the Constitution. That too is the mind-set of a lawless demagogue.

Add to that Trump’s lies, the constant big and small ones, the ridiculous and the mendacious. We know from his persistent telling of untruths that have been long ago debunked that he has become indifferent to or unfamiliar with the real world when facts do not comport with his views. Couple that with his attack on an independent source of information — the free press — and one sees a president morphing into an authoritarian who imagines he is unencumbered by the law.

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Bauer recalls some of the most dangerous lies, threats and rejections of democratic government:

Trump’s speech in office, much of it delivered in 140 characters to millions, is extremely and consistently loose with truth, often outrightly false, and contemptuous of institutions, including courts of law. His assaults on the media for “fake news” include the flat-out denial of reporting, including reporting he knows to be true, such as emerging chronicle of the 2016 Russian intervention … He fired James Comey as FBI director for the stated reason that Comey was investigating that intervention—an investigation with implications for his, his family’s and his campaign’s legal interests. Then, he threatened Comey with the disclosure of “tapes” of their conversations; tapes that he later acknowledged did not exist. …
Trump’s speech, like that of the classic demagogue, is not merely replete with falsehoods and disdain for limits. Of Trump it may be said, as [Sen. Joe] McCarthy’s biographer said of him, that “he [has] delighted in revenge and when attacked [will] return a blow twice as hard,” and in argument, he has “refused to concede a single point and clung tenaciously to his position.”

In and of themselves, Trump’s words might not be sufficient to justify impeachment. But when you combine them with his severe intellectual and temperamental limitations that require constant monitoring by a triumvirate of generals, and his attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation, there is little doubt that he is precisely the sort of person whom the Founding Fathers had in mind when they included the impeachment clause.