Commentary: Loose talk about removing presidents from office has been routine for decades, perhaps since the unsuccessful impeachment of President Clinton in 1998-99.
The irregular election of George W. Bush in 2000 cast a pall of illegitimacy over his administration, and widespread revulsion over the invasion of Iraq, treatment of detainees and domestic surveillance, led to some limited debates over impeachment.
Talk of impeaching Barack Obama began before he took office, following years of lies about his citizenship augmented most prominently by the man who succeeded him to the presidency, Donald Trump.
Trump, in turn, was the subject of impeachment theories immediately after his surprise victory in 2016, which was followed by a vain effort to persuade Republican electors to veto Trump in the electoral college.
It is hardly surprising, then, to observe a niche market for books about impeachment, the constitutional means of removing an elected president for severe misconduct or incapacity.
Since the language defining grounds for impeachment — “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" — is open to interpretation (the final phrase in particular) it is easier to formulate a case for impeachment than to secure conviction by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate.
University of Missouri law professor Frank O. Bowman III’s forthcoming book, “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” offers a scrupulous and thorough history of impeachment as a political tool, beginning with the British parliamentary tradition that preceded the American revolution and our constitution.
It includes a summary of every impeachment in American history: two presidents (plus the resignation of President Richard Nixon ahead of certain impeachment), 13 judges, one U.S. Senator, a Supreme Court Justice and a cabinet secretary.
Impeachment is a political rather than a judicial process, tried and decided by elected legislators. “Impeachment was designed not as a legal process for punishing individual wrongdoing, but as a means for protecting the republic from the faults, frailties, or skullduggery of high government officers,” Bowman writes.
Before proceeding to review prospective arguments for a Trump impeachment, Bowman develops a case for presidential impeachment as a means of vindicating constitutional order, its formal separation of powers as well as normative ideas, rather than as a punitive measure.
“High crimes and misdemeanors” need not include indictable offenses, and yet an actual crime may not merit removing a president (who could be tried after leaving office). The priority is whether the totality of a president’s actions require an intervention on behalf of constitutional values and order.
Here, the book quickly lands on a blunt and even grim conclusion: ours is not now the sort of country that cherishes (or even recognizes) republican values — the idea of res publica, the state as an entity “by, for, and of” its people — over the struggle for partisan power. This is the corrosive factionalism against which George Washington devoted his farewell address to warning his country.
Given the present level of public disdain for public institutions and journalism, tactically exploited by Trump and his faction, Bowman concludes soberly (and correctly) that “our political polarization has run so far that a critical constitutional bulwark against executive dysfunction or even incipient tyranny may no longer be available.”
It remains to be seen what more we will learn about Mr. Trump, or what he and Congress will do, but we, as a public, still have a say over what is normal, healthy political conduct. What will you normalize today?
'High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,"by Frank O. Bowman III. Cambridge University Press, 478 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)