THE CASE FOR IMPEACHMENT
This is a young administration that at times feels not just exhausting but exhausted. Airstrikes may give it a quick boost of pundit-powered presidentialism, but that high doesn’t last.
Allan J. Lichtman, the American University historian who in September predicted Donald Trump’s electoral victory (earning a “Professor — Congrats — good call” note from the candidate) is issuing another bold forecast: Trump will be impeached. Unlike his election pick, which was based on a systematic evaluation of 13 political indicators that have helped Lichtman call every presidential contest since 1984, the professor’s views on impeachment are more impressionistic. He bases his conclusion on Trump’s questionable practices throughout his real estate and entertainment career, his early overreach in office, the conflicts between his financial interests and public obligations, and his soft spot for verifiable falsehoods. “A president who seems to have learned nothing from history is abusing and violating the public trust and setting the stage for a myriad of impeachable offenses,” the author writes.
Much of what Lichtman compiles in these pages is by now excruciatingly familiar — a one-stop shop for #NeverTrump diehards and resistance marchers — and there are moments when he stretches his rationalizations so far that they snap back and smack him. But it is still striking to see the full argument unfold and realize that you don’t have to be a zealot to imagine some version of it happening.
“The Case for Impeachment” is hardly airtight. I’d sooner bet on reelection than impeachment, and a full, single term seems likelier than either. Yet there is power in plausibility, especially when impeachment may hinge, more than anything, on Trump remaining true to himself.
Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only presidents ever impeached by the House of Representatives — although both survived in the Senate — but Lichtman fixates on the parallels between Trump and President Richard Nixon, who opted to resign rather than be fired. “Even early in his presidency, Donald Trump exhibits the same tendencies that led Nixon to violate the most basic standards of morality and threaten the foundations of our democracy,” he writes. “They also shared a compulsion to deflect blame, and they were riddled with insecurities. They exploited the resentments of white working class Americans and split the world into enemies and loyalists. . . . Neither man allowed the law, the truth, the free press, or the potential for collateral damage to others to impede their personal agendas. . . . They obsessed over secrecy and thirsted for control without dissent.” Lichtman likens press secretary Sean Spicer’s M.O. to that of Nixon’s Ron Ziegler (“Deny. Lie. Threaten. And blame the messengers.”) and believes that Nixonian abuses of power will provoke Trump’s downfall.
Under the premise that impeachment “need not be limited to violations that occur during the president’s term in office,” Lichtman devotes much space to Trump’s pre-presidential misdeeds, including alleged breaches of the Fair Housing Act in the 1970s, the scams of Trump University, the exploitation of undocumented immigrants in his construction business and modeling agency, and his decidedly uncharitable giving. Morally and legally, Lichtman may be right to cover this ground, but politically, his stronger case involves the clash between Trump’s vast business dealings — which the president has neither fully divulged nor relinquished — and his duties to the public.
“A president’s family should not be profiting from his public office, whether through a lawsuit or a branded enterprise,” Lichtman writes. “It’s impossible to disentangle Trump’s financial interests from those of his family.” He provides the obligatory tutorial on the emoluments clause of the Constitution, then delves into Trump’s licensing deals in the Philippines, trademark contracts in China, the debts his businesses have incurred — the sort of links that give foreign and commercial interests potential leverage over this president.
Lichtman spins some dubious scenarios, too. He imagines that Trump could be ousted, for instance, if the International Criminal Court charged him with crimes against humanity for opposing policies and accords that combat climate change. He admits the idea is “far-fetched” but contends that, though it would lack legal standing domestically, an ICC prosecution “would have the moral force to raise calls for President Trump’s impeachment.”
Hmm. Yes, other than the spread of nuclear weapons, there may be no graver long-term threat to the planet than climate change. But the notion that the House would impeach Trump because of the environmental concerns of some globocrats in The Hague . . . well, that’ll happen when the Arctic refreezes over.
The Trump administration’s Russia controversies offer a less-fanciful route to ruin. What began as revelations of interference by a foreign power in the 2016 U.S. election has become an exploration of ties between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign. Lichtman does not hesitate to go there: Trump, he contends, “stands a chance of becoming the first American president charged with treason or the failure to report treason by agents and associates.” Investigations by the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees mean that “a Russian sword of Damocles hangs over Trump’s head,” Lichtman writes. “If it falls, his presidency is over. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress will tolerate a compromised or treacherous president. Impeachment and trial will be quick and decisive.”
Of course, quick and decisive are not what we’ve come to expect from the legislative branch of late. The author imagines a “wave of popular revulsion” against the president restoring Democratic control of the House in the 2018 midterm vote, though he acknowledges the tough odds. And when pondering whether a Republican House would move forward on impeachment — recall Gerald Ford’s definition of an impeachable offense as “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment” — Lichtman posits, not quite convincingly, that Trump could prove vulnerable no matter what he accomplishes as president.
If the GOP manages to pass all the tax cuts, deregulation and reforms on its to-do list and feels it no longer needs Trump, lawmakers could drop the president should he become a liability, he writes. And if their agenda falters, House members could ditch the president in favor of the more conventional Vice President Pence, whom Lichtman considers a “dream president” for conservatives. Either way, he assumes, Trump is gone.
For Lichtman, Trump’s personality aggravates the risks to his presidency. He displays “extreme narcissism,” the author argues, and he lies compulsively, with deceit as “an ingrained way of life.” Lichtman suggests that these tendencies could lead to a Clinton-style “impeachment trap,” in which Trump is tempted to speak untruthfully while under oath in, say, a sexual harassment legal proceeding. He might also lie to cover up his campaign’s ties to Moscow. “The response of Trump and his team to allegations of communications with Russian officials fits the classic pattern of a cover-up,” Lichtman suggests. “First conceal and deny, then when outed by press claim that the communications were routine, innocuous, or incidental — kind of like a ‘third-rate burglary.’ ”
Lichtman points to the fiasco of the executive order banning entry into the United States by people from several Muslim-majority countries as exemplifying Trump’s impeachment-friendly impulses. “Through the drafting, implementation, and defense of his first travel ban, Trump trampled on core American traditions and principles,” he writes. “He has effectively claimed absolute presidential authority and breached the separation of powers that the framers established as a check against tyranny.” Trump’s knee-jerk disparagement of judges blocking the ban also “preemptively piled blame on the courts for any future terrorist attack against the United States,” Lichtman cautions, suggesting ominously that in the event of a major attack, Trump could blame the courts and other political enemies “as a pretext for taking charge under martial law.”
Lies. Abuse of power. Treason. Crimes against humanity. Martial law. Lichtman throws everything Trump’s way, and after a while, it is hard to tell when the historian is predicting, hoping, or just reprimanding.
It is possible that incompetence, more than malevolence, will prove this administration’s legacy. So in case the president just doesn’t know any better, Lichtman halfheartedly recommends some moves Trump could make to hang on: Divest yourself from all your business interests. Have all your speeches and tweets fact-checked beforehand. Treat women with respect. Stop demeaning immigrants and delegitimizing judges. Abandon your war on the press. Cut out the Mussolini act. He even urges Trump to hire an official White House shrink. All things, in other words, that involve President Trump ceasing to behave anything like President Trump. Lichtman also encourages Trump to fire chief strategist Steve Bannon — the most realistic item on this docket.
“Justice will be realized in today’s America not through revolution, but by the Constitution’s peaceful remedy of impeachment — but only if the people demand it,” Lichtman concludes. He seems to want them to, stoking fears of global annihilation, saying that Trump’s “hair-trigger outbursts are frightening in a man who controls a nuclear arsenal with the power to end civilization. . . . Americans have a right to ask whether the impulsive Trump would have the calm deliberation needed to respond to seemingly hostile blips on a radar screen.”
Yes, Americans absolutely have the right to ask that question and many others Lichtman raises — and they asked them plenty of times during an interminable 2016 race packed with revelations about Trump’s career, ideas and values. You can be disappointed, even horrified, by this president, but what you really can’t be is surprised. And impeachment is not a gift receipt for citizens suddenly feeling buyer’s remorse.
This book joins the campaign for Trump’s removal that started as early as Inauguration Day. Lichtman’s case for impeachment is plausible, certainly, but it is far stronger as an argument for why Americans never should have elected Trump in the first place. Yet we did.
So it may not be too soon for this book, after all. It may be too late.