Shortly after the release of the redacted Mueller Report, when Democrats were engaged in a simmering debate on whether to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president, you occasionally heard talk about the less drastic–and easier to accomplish–option of censuring him.
Now that an impeachment inquiry is underway, the shoe is on the other foot, and among those Republicans who aren’t just angrily defending everything Trump has ever done, we are beginning to hear mutterings about censure as a way for the GOP to express disapproval of the president’s conduct without removing him from office. Here’s Washington Post conservative columnist Henry Olsen following Gordon Sondland’s testimony establishing Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to mess with the Bidens:
Republican members of Congress should seek to do justice in all of its elements here. That could easily involve acquittal in the Senate, because all this does is put the final decision to the American people. But they should also act to both condemn what Trump has done and try to ensure that no other president is ever tempted to do something similar.
The condemnation can take the form of a resolution to censure Trump over this matter. He will surely be upset at such a move, but the president was also upset about Congress’s resolution disapproving his national emergency declaration this year to obtain funds to build his wall on our southern border. Many Republicans voted for that, and none were ostracized as a result. Trump would, in time, likely view a censure resolution similarly.
Interestingly enough, another Washington Post columnist, Karen Tumulty endorsed this same course of action 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 identical situation, if Trump is impeached by the House with acquittal by the Senate being a virtual certainty, more Republicans may jump on the censure bandwagon, and Senate Democrats will have to decide whether to support it as a sort of withered booby prize since taking Trump down was beyond their powers. It’s even possible that if the impeachment effort in the House somehow goes awry, and/or if public opinion turns against it sharply, Democrats could shift to censure as a Plan B.
A censure resolution with enough enumeration of misconduct, especially if it is supported by lawmakers in his own party, 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 at this late date, the fires of the impeachment fight are burning too hot and bright for most officials on either side to reach for a fire extinguisher.
This post has been updated.