Commentary: Frank Bowman has spent a lot of time on the phone this week.
The University of Missouri law professor’s new book about the history of impeachment in British and American politics, “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” has arrived in bookstores just in time for the narrative about impeaching President Donald Trump to change, almost overnight.
This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been throwing pails of ice water on talk of impeachment throughout Trump’s term, used the I-word herself when she announced a formal impeachment query following reports about the president’s contacts with his Ukrainian counterpart.
For 10 minutes Thursday morning, Bowman spoke with me about a major theme of his book: The fact that impeachable offenses need not be indictable crimes. Sometimes impeaching a president is an argument about the norms of acceptable behavior by a president.
If what we are learning about the president’s phone calls with Ukraine’s president, apparently seeking the aid of a foreign power in gathering information embarrassing to a political opponent, is what tips the balance it would be part of a larger nexus of conduct that need not break the law to merit impeachment.
“When our framers put impeachment into the Constitution, all those folks were thinking about the ability to remove officials not just for criminal behavior, but for things that just so offended the basic understandings of constitutional arrangements and public propriety, that removal was required,” Bowman said.
His book refers to “prophylactic impeachment,” a cleansing process for when bad conduct “gives cause for concern that it will continue and do additional damage to the presidency and the country.”
He cites the actions taken against Richard Nixon as an example in which a president “refused to be constrained by law or constitutional custom in the pursuit of his political aims and the maintenance of his power; he had to be impeached to stop him.” Nixon resigned rather than face that process.
“What matters is whether it offends our basic sense of how power ought to be exercised by a president,” Bowman said.
Yet how can a country steeped in odious uses of power set moral standards of presidential conduct?
On the day of Pelosi’s announcement, New Mexico journalist and commentator Heath Haussamen remarked on Twitter, “If this is the thing that gets Trump, history will also remember that it wasn't intentionally traumatizing migrant children that motivated Congress to act, but instead a possible quid pro quo related to money that was earmarked to feed the military industrial complex.”
Presidents do rotten things, but most of the rotten things they do — waging unnecessary and destructive wars, engaging in torture and war crimes, expanding domestic surveillance of the citizenry, prioritizing the interests of capital over the welfare of the people — are not considered impeachable offenses.
“One has to be cautious about bandying about impeachment whenever somebody does something unusual or offensive, because that’s plainly not what impeachment is for either,” Bowman said. “Deciding whether something is impeachable actually requires the people doing the impeachment to think really hard about what is fundamental.”
So what are fundamental norms, we ask as increasingly acidic oceans rise around our continent and the atmosphere bakes, nuclear weapons proliferate, and we send off our children hoping today is not the day It Happens at their school? It is as if we were helpless to address the ecological destruction and social violence we navigate every day.
Presidents come and go; and yet, despite being described as the most powerful person in the world, they seem dwarfed by the architecture of state power and societal violence.
How might the people address these norms?