The facts have been established. We already know that Trump, in a July 25 call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, pressured that government to open an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden, who currently leads in the polls for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election. Biden’s son Hunter showed sketchy judgment in doing business in Ukraine while his father was in office, but the matter has already been thoroughly scrutinized, and there has not been a shred of evidence that the vice president did anything inappropriate on Hunter Biden’s behalf. After Trump put pressure on Zelensky, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani amped it up in at least one meeting with an associate of the Ukraine leader. All of this was going on as Trump was holding up $250 million in military aid that Ukraine badly needs to fend off a threat from the Russians to the east.
Many Democrats have made the case that this is impeachable behavior on Trump’s part. Many others — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — point out that impeaching Trump would be a futile gesture, because the Republican-led Senate would never vote to remove him from office. Those who are resisting impeachment also raise a valid concern that, whatever the merits, the backlash over a drawn-out impeachment proceeding could actually help Trump win a second term.
This argument will continue, with new fuel being added by the administration’s refusal to turn over a whistleblower’s complaint regarding the Trump-Zelensky conversation. It is hard to see how it could possibly be resolved before we are well into the 2020 campaign season. But there is something the House could do right now, an idea that I have raised before: censure the president.
The procedure for doing so is pretty straightforward, as spelled out in a recent report by the Congressional Research Service:
Should a House committee report a non-Member censure resolution, the full House may consider it by unanimous consent, under the Suspension of the Rules procedure, or under the terms of a special rule reported by the Committee on Rules and adopted by the House. 17 If widespread support exists for the censure resolution, unanimous consent or the Suspension of the Rules procedure may be used. Otherwise, the resolution could be brought to the floor under a special rule reported by the Committee on Rules. All three of these parliamentary mechanisms require, at a minimum, the support of the majority party leadership in order to be entertained.
In other words, a censure resolution could be brought to the House floor with support from Democrats alone, and it would not require any action on the part of the Senate.
This would not sate the appetite of the pro-impeachment forces, or end the debate over whether that step is warranted. But it could be done quickly, with the evidence at hand, and would have the benefit of forcing Republican members to go on record stating whether they do or do not find this behavior on the part of the president acceptable. While many would argue that censure is a symbolic gesture, it is a disgrace that Trump would share with only one other president in American history — his purported idol, Andrew Jackson. Jackson was censured by the Senate in 1834 as the result of a little-remembered dispute over the Second Bank of the United States; it was expunged a few years later when his pro-Jackson Democrats gained a majority in the chamber, which showed that they regarded a censure as more than a slap on the wrist.
None of this would end the argument over impeachment, but it would prove to the American people that at least part of their government sets a higher standard of behavior than our current president does. It also, finally, would force Republicans to answer a question that they have been dodging: Is there anything this president does that you will not tolerate?