“What the president did was wrong,” Manchin said in a speech on the Senate floor. ...The legislation argues that Trump “used the office of the president of the United States to attempt to compel a foreign nation to interfere with domestic political affairs for his own personal benefit” and says Trump “wrongfully enlisted his personal lawyer to investigate a domestic political rival by meddling in formal diplomatic relations in a manner that is inconsistent with our established National Security Strategy.”It adds that “Trump hindered the thorough investigation of related documents and prohibited Congress and the American people from hearing testimony by first-hand witnesses with direct knowledge of his conduct.”
Let’s start with the constitutional objections to censure. The approved check on presidents in the constitutional scheme is impeachment. Contrary to the nonsensical argument from Trump’s lawyers and several seemingly confused Republicans, the Founders expressly provided for a check on the president so that we would not need to wait until the next election. Yes, it is substituting the Senate’s judgment for the voters when the president abuses his office, though it does not “undo” the election (Vice President Pence would become president upon the president’s removal). There is nothing about censure in the Constitution, though the Constitution certainly could have provided for such an alternative. Censure is, therefore, constitutionally questionable.
Putting aside the constitutional question for a moment, censure makes sense when everyone agrees the president did something wrong but that it is not a high crime or misdemeanor. During the Bill Clinton impeachment, for example, the president, his Democratic allies and Republicans all agreed that Clinton did what he was accused of (lying about sex under oath), but they did not agree on whether it was of sufficient weight to warrant removal. In the Trump impeachment, however, the president, his lawyers and a significant number of Trump’s Republican defenders insist he did nothing wrong. (Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz insists a president has every right to do what he needs to get reelected, which effectively obliterates the impeachment clause.) Some Republicans were even hanging their hat on the mixed-motive defense, asserting without a shred of evidence that Trump really cared about rooting out corruption (except, I suppose, in his own administration, in Ukrainian companies no Biden ever worked for and in Russia). To turn on a dime and now agree to censure the president would make them look even less principled (if it is metaphysically possible) than they have to date.
Moreover, Trump will not give Republicans a pass to censure him anymore than he would tolerate conviction. Since Republicans really only care about one question — “What does Trump want?” — there seems to be nothing in it for them. Indeed, virtually all of them are supporting Trump for reelection.
As for Democrats, the next best thing to conviction is a sham trial in which Republicans are rightfully seen as knuckling under to Trump. Republicans’ view of unlimited presidential power and/or refusal to look at evidence are attractive targets for Democrats in 2020. Why blur a clear line between sycophantic, craven Republicans and principled truth-seeking Democrats?
“Censure is meaningless to Trump,” observes former prosecutor Joyce White Vance. “It does nothing to hold him accountable for what he’s already done or prevent him from doing worse in the future.” She adds, “At best it gives people who lack the courage of their convictions a moment in which they can feel like they did something, but it’s nothing but an empty gesture.”
Manchin is not up for reelection for another four years, so it is unclear why he is struggling to do the right thing and convict. (He is not known for putting daylight between himself and Trump, as we saw when he voted to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.) He and the rest of the Senate should buck up: Convict or accept the political, historical and moral consequences.