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If Democrats Don’t Impeach Trump, They Could Still Censure Him

There is more than one way to highlight and punish the president’s misconduct. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

After the release of the redacted Mueller Report, an already-simmering debate among Democrats on whether to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president has intensified. Unsurprisingly, it spilled over into the 2020 presidential nominating contest when Senator Elizabeth Warren became the first major candidate to flatly endorse the immediate pursuit of impeachment and when some of her rivals (such as Julián Castro, who called impeachment “perfectly reasonable,” and Pete Buttigieg, who said Trump “deserved to be impeached”) inched closer to that position.

The decision will ultimately be up to House Democratic leaders, particularly Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, both of whom have resisted earlier calls for impeachment on grounds that without an extremely unlikely groundswell of Republican support it will go nowhere in the Senate and will overshadow efforts to defeat Trump in 2020.

But with each new drumbeat of pro-impeachment sentiment, the pressure increases on congressional Democratic leaders to do something other than simply agitate the air over Trump’s arguably criminal misconduct and then change the subject to health care or economic inequality. Issuing subpoenas for the full Mueller record is fine, as is securing the special counsel’s own testimony, and there are other avenues for further investigating Trump and his cronies. But the thirst for some moment of specific accountability for the president probably won’t be slaked by such measures.

There is one alternative approach that is quicker and simpler than impeachment, and doesn’t necessarily require any cooperation from the Senate. Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty endorsed it in the wake of the Mueller release, while noting its shortcomings:

[T]here is another option: Either house, could, with a majority vote, formally censure Trump, something that has not happened to any chief executive since the Senate censured Andrew Jackson in 1834.

While this would be dismissed in some quarters as merely a symbolic act, it would be a historic rebuke of the Trump presidency — and would, properly, leave it to the voters to decide whether they have had enough of it.

Unlike impeachment, a presidential censure has no specific constitutional authorization. Censure has been more customarily meted out by Congress to its own members (most famously Joe McCarthy in 1954) as a disciplinary measure short of the constitutionally sanctioned remedy of expulsion. As Tumulty noted, the Senate (controlled by the opposition Whigs) censured Jackson during a dispute over the Bank of the United States, but Democrats had the measure expunged from the record when they regained control of the chamber. Censure resolutions have been introduced but not enacted during multiple presidencies. Indeed, Trump’s behavior has already inspired the introduction of two House resolutions (one for his comments after the white-nationalist riot in Charlottesville, and another after his racist reference to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries”).

The most relevant recent precedent, however, is almost certainly the effort by Democrats (encouraged by the White House) to censure Bill Clinton instead of impeaching him; Republicans defeated measures in both chambers (one in the House Judiciary Committee and the other on the Senate floor) to substitute censure for action on impeachment. In the hypothetical scenario Tumulty lays out, the shoe would be on the other foot with Democrats proposing to censure Trump, with or without any Republican cooperation.

Democrats could almost certainly pass a censure resolution in the House, without the kind of ponderous preparations impeachment would involve. If skillfully framed to condemn presidential behavior that no one condones, it might put some Republican members from swing districts on the spot. The Senate’s another matter; the power to filibuster a censure resolution means it would take 60 votes to pass it. Senators who are particularly vulnerable in 2020, like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, would be hard-pressed to vote against it. And it’s possible even more GOP senators could go on record condemning their own president, creating a potent 2020 talking point against Trump himself. Read this post-Mueller statement by Mitt Romney and see if you think he would side with Trump against a censure resolution:

That sort of talk about Trump from people in both parties, formalized by a censure resolution, might put a bit of a dent in the president’s reelection effort, while setting Republicans who love him against those who simply tolerate him. But before moving in this direction, congressional Democrats would have to unite their own ranks behind the strategy, and so long as the fires of impeachment fever rage, that will not be easy.

Barring Impeachment, Democrats Could Still Censure Trump