On Thursday, freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) infuriated many of her colleagues by telling a room of liberal activists that the Democratic House of Representatives would “impeach the motherf---er.”
To some on the left, Tlaib’s comments seemed not just sensible but long overdue. After all, President Trump has committed impeachable offenses. At a minimum, he has interfered with the ongoing inquiry into Russian election meddling. He has publicly admitted as much, and his numerous tweets on the subject reveal a pattern of obstructing justice. There is also increasing evidence that he colluded with various parties to defraud the American people to win the presidency. We will know more about his offenses when special counsel Robert S. Mueller III concludes his investigation and the House begins its examination of the president’s conduct.
Yet Tlaib’s comments disregard the political reality: Gaining a conviction in the Republican Senate is highly unlikely, and thus far, impeachment remains politically unpopular. This makes it worthwhile for House Democrats to consider an alternative path. Rather than allowing her party to get mired in an impeachment battle that will distract from its progressive message, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could orchestrate a presidential censure. And not just one. House Democrats could adopt a series of censure resolutions, one for each investigation revealing serious misconduct.
Censure is a formal reprimand adopted by one or both chambers of Congress. Unlike impeachment, presidential censure is not constitutionally sanctioned. Thus, it does not result in removal from office. Yet it has proved to be an effective form of public shaming, especially when implemented in a nonpartisan way. Such a punishment seems well suited for this president and this moment in our national history.
There is precedent for this strategy. Members of Congress have introduced censure resolutions against at least 12 presidents. The most successful effort was the censure of Andrew Jackson in 1834, when the Senate condemned him for removing federal deposits from the Second Bank of the United States.
During this period, maintaining a central bank was the most controversial policy debate between Jackson’s Democrats, who promoted laissez-faire economics, and Henry Clay’s Whigs, who supported government action to spur economic growth. Jackson said the bank concentrated excessive financial strength in a single institution and served mainly to make the rich even richer, whereas Clay said it was needed to regulate public credit and maintain a stable currency.
Two years earlier, when Clay had attempted to force the institution to recharter early, Jackson rejected the legislation in a strongly worded veto message. Then, in an effort to cripple the bank, he ordered Treasury Secretary William Duane to withdraw all federal government deposits from the institution. When Duane declined because this action would impair the functioning of an institution properly established by the federal government, he was fired. His replacement was also fired for failing to carry out Jackson’s illegal bidding. Eventually, Roger Taney did what his predecessors would not. An incensed Clay drafted, and the Whig Senate adopted, a resolution declaring that Jackson had “assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”
Some suggested this was a weak rebuke of the president because it imposed no penalty. Jackson himself, however, understood the power of the resolution. It was a declaration to all Americans and to posterity that he had acted against the interests of the nation. He was so convinced that it would be a permanent stain on his reputation that, when his party retook control of the Senate several years later, he persuaded it to expunge the censure from the congressional record. Nevertheless, we still remember it nearly two centuries later.
In addition to presidential censure, Congress has reprimanded more than 30 of its own members. The most famous, and most relevant today, was the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). He rose to power in the early 1950s by claiming to know the identities of hundreds of communists who had infiltrated the federal government, academia and Hollywood. As chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, he pursued an aggressive Red Hunt that lasted for nearly two years. In hearing after hearing, McCarthy resorted to personal smears and innuendo. Few stood up to him because they feared the ire of McCarthy and his millions of supporters.
He went too far, however, when he began investigating the military. These hearings were televised nationally, and most Americans didn’t like what they saw as McCarthy bullied distinguished officers. In July 1954, Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-Vt.) introduced a resolution calling for McCarthy’s formal reprimand. The chamber considered 46 claims of misconduct, ultimately settling on two charges: obstruction of justice and conduct contrary to Senate traditions. By a vote of 67 to 22, McCarthy was harshly censured. Although he completed his term in office, his influence vanished. Today, he remains reviled for his abuses of power.
There are lessons for Democrats in both these censure efforts. Partisanship partially drove the Jackson censure, something House Democrats must avoid today. Handling Trump’s misdeeds cannot devolve into the equivalent of the Republican-led impeachment of Bill Clinton two decades ago, which strengthened that president more than serving as a punishment. Instead, House Democrats should copy the much more measured methods employed by the Senate when investigating McCarthy. The hearings back then were intended to restore dignity to government by adopting a judicial atmosphere. The focus was on a solemn assessment of misconduct rather than personal animus — the opposite of Tlaib’s impassioned exclamation at a political event.
This provides a good road map for Pelosi to follow as she stage-manages the various investigations that will be conducted by several House committees. These should be sober affairs devoid of partisanship, concluding with a committee report to the full House. After considering each report, the House would vote on censure with a simple majority needed for passage.
It will be important to know what the end game is from the beginning of this process. If the ultimate objective is impeachment and removal from office, House Democrats will be attempting to perform a political miracle. If the final goal is censure, however, it will be far easier to send a clear message to the American people that progressives stand for the rule of law and good government.
Given that Democrats hold a significant majority in the chamber and thus represent a majority of the American people, these reprimands would have significant weight in the arena of public opinion. They would be even more effective if Pelosi choreographs a semiregular pattern of censure votes through the summer of 2020 and if the investigations are so irreproachable that some Republicans vote for censure.
While impeachment and removal from office would certainly be gratifying, what is more important is to restore the norms of our republic. We cannot tolerate the law breaking that has come to typify the Trump administration. Censuring the president would be a pragmatic approach to undermining President Trump, one that will hopefully result in a historic electoral rebuke of authoritarianism.