Donald Trump is wildly unfit to be president, and he will demonstrate that in ways that break the law and violate the Constitution. Since the election, there have been three wishful efforts to keep Trump from the presidency: a recount doomed by a lack of evidence; a futile campaign to flip Trump electors; and an even more improbable drive to get the Supreme Court to annul the 2016 election.
These moves, indicative of magical thinking, make Trump’s opposition look a lot weaker than it is―at a time when the stakes for the Republic could not be higher. There will also be marches and demonstrations, but they will also look weak unless they have a strategic focus.
There is only one constitutional way to remove a president, and that is via impeachment.
What’s needed is a citizens’ impeachment inquiry, to begin on Trump’s first day in office.
The inquiry should keep a running dossier, and forward updates at least weekly to the House Judiciary Committee. There will be no lack of evidence.
The materials should be made public via a website. The inquiry should be conducted by a distinguished panel whose high-mindedness and credentials are, well, unimpeachable.
There needs to be a parallel public campaign, pressing for an official investigation. For those appalled by Trump, who wonder where to focus their efforts, here is something concrete―and more realistic than it may seem.
Trump has already committed grave misdeeds of the kind that the Constitutional founders described as high crimes and misdemeanors. With his commingling of his official duties and his personal enrichment, Trump will be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which unambiguously prohibits any person holding public office from profiting from gifts or financial benefits from “any king, prince or Foreign state.”
Trump, who has entangled his business interests with his political connections at home and abroad, has already declared his contempt for these Constitutional protections. He declared, “The law is totally on my side, meaning the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Oh, yes he can, and this president will.
In his dalliance with Vladimir Putin, Trump’s actions are skirting treason. John Shattuck, former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and former Washington legal director of the ACLU has pointed to the constitutional definition of treason: a crime committed by a person “owing allegiance to the United States who... adheres to their enemies, giving them aid or comfort.” By undermining further investigation or sanctions against the Russian manipulation of the 2016 election, Trump as president would be giving aid and comfort to Russian interference with American democracy.
There will be a lot more once Trump takes office. Trump will make grievous mistakes. If we are lucky, they will be political and policy mistakes, not the sort of nuclear miscalculation that leaves the planet a cinder. If the blunders and assaults against the Constitution are serious enough, even Republicans in the House, which needs to originate an impeachment inquiry, will begin having second thoughts.
For instance, Trump will very likely use agencies of government to punish political enemies. The Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon explicitly cited Nixon’s political misuse of the CIA, the FBI and the IRS.
It’s worth recalling the Nixon chronology. In two years, the idea of impeaching Nixon went from loony-left fantasy, to mainstream, to inevitable.
On May 9, 1972—before the Watergate break-in―my former boss, Congressman William Fitts Ryan of Manhattan, submitted the first resolution to impeach Nixon, H.Res. 975, mainly for the illegal bombing of Cambodia, other war crimes, and spying against American citizens.
The break-in occurred in June 1972. Woodward and Bernstein got busy that summer and fall. The Senate Watergate Committee did not start hearings until May 1973, and the official House impeachment inquiry only began in May 1974. It took time for evidence, public pressure, and political courage to build. Nixon finally resigned in August 1974, more than two years after the break-in.
In October 1973, when removing Nixon from office still seemed a fantasy, the ACLU’s Chuck Morgan published a book-length bill of particulars urging Nixon’s impeachment. It bore a remarkable resemblance to the eventual Articles of Impeachment nearly a year later.
Nixon was a vile president with a creepy personality, but he was also a student of history and a serious person. In the end, even Nixon acceded to court orders to turn over evidence.
Trump is far more of a menace than Nixon. Trump will commit impeachable offenses. There is no way to contain him other than removing him from office, before the damage to our democracy is irrevocable. The process of building the impeachment case needs to begin now.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School.