For only the fourth time in American history, the House of Representatives has drafted articles of impeachment for a president. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached and then acquitted in the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned rather than endure near-certain conviction by the Senate. Now Donald Trump faces the prospect of impeachment in the House and a Senate trial.

We cannot know what the outcome of this will be, either for President Trump or our nation. But we can assess what the House has proposed and measure it against what has gone before.

Our politicians today confront an almost impossible conundrum: How should they respond to this president? What should be their focus? In the end, while we can critique the choices made by House leaders, their decision to home in on the fundamental American principle of checks and balances is likely to be the most consequential.

Our Founders wanted a limited government that was energetic enough to be effective — one with “the powers to act and a structure to make it act wisely and responsibly,” as constitutional scholar Herbert Storing put it. Toward that goal, they set up a system of checks and balances where the branches of government oversaw each other and prevented abuse by protecting their own prerogatives. They hoped the separation of powers would frustrate the lust for power.

Assault on checks and balances

The most important choice the House made is to charge the president with obstruction of Congress in its second proposed article of impeachment. Trump’s decision to completely stonewall the House — to withhold documentation from Congress during its impeachment investigation and to order witnesses not to testify — is nothing less than an assault on the checks and balances at the core of the American system.

For most of our history, executive activities, while sometimes aberrant, could be counted on to remain bounded by law. Fears of abuse (under, say, George W. Bush or Barack Obama) were for the most part overblown. The executive was generally law abiding in intent, and the legislative branch (along with the judicial) served as a check on rare occasions when abuse occurred.

This is not to say abuse did not occur, but rather that norms of behavior so constrained the executive that we could have a high degree of confidence in the resilience of the political system. For me, Watergate was a success story — albeit a success achieved only with courage and tenacity on the part of the press, the investigators, Congress and the judiciary. Ultimately, the norms of democratic accountability held and the nation was steadied on its course.

Trump’s gravest offenses

Today, many in our country are troubled by a feeling that we can no longer take these norms for granted. The institutions and mechanisms we have long relied upon to keep executive power within bounds seem no longer to function. Incumbents in institutions like the presidency and some parts of the Congress are losing sight of the importance of the rule of law, and placing the health of our democracy at risk.

In short, we are no longer sure that adequate powers exist to ensure that a president adheres to the rule of law, and to punish any abuses of power that come to light. And if our powers are no longer adequate, what can be done?

In this context, President Trump’s gravest offenses have been to reject limits on his authority and deny the ability of Congress to oversee his actions. When he says of the Constitution, “Then I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” Trump is striking at the very heart of American democracy.

In recommending an article of impeachment for obstructing Congress, the House is making the critical, essential choice to reaffirm its role as a coequal branch of government charged with restraining executive overreach. How this struggle plays out is far more important than anything we might think about this president, personally.

What happens next will define American democracy for years to come.

Image credit: Evan El-Amin

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