WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump became the third president to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in a vote Wednesday evening that fell along party lines, with the exception of three Democrats who opposed one or both articles of impeachment and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who voted “present.”
Afterward, Catholic experts spoke with the Register about the Democrats’ case against Trump and what the impeachment could mean ahead of the 2020 election.
The Democratic majority in the House, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., charged Trump with two articles of impeachment: “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress.”
The first article centers on the allegation that during a phone call in July, Trump attempted to leverage a White House meeting and military assistance, sought by Ukraine because of Russian aggression, to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into launching an investigation of former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joseph Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
The second article of impeachment charges him with obstruction of Congress over “defiance of subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives pursuant to its sole Power of Impeachment.” The articles of impeachment followed a three-month inquiry led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., following a complaint by an anonymous CIA whistleblower.
As of Dec. 19, however, Pelosi has refused to say when she will transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, claiming she needs more clarity on the rules of the Senate trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the impeachment effort “the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair” attempt at impeachment in modern history.
In its response to the impeachment vote Wednesday, the White House argued that the Democrats have conducted the process unfairly and have not found evidence of an impeachable offense.
“The House blatantly ignored precedent and conducted the inquiry in secrecy behind closed doors so that Chairman Adam Schiff and his partisan political cronies could selectively leak information to their partners in the media to push a false narrative,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham stated.
“When public hearings were held before Chairman Schiff’s committee, Democrats continued their games and denied the president the ability to cross-examine witnesses or present witnesses or evidence,” Grisham wrote. “The proceedings in the Judiciary Committee included no fact witnesses at all and consisted solely of a biased law seminar and a staffer rehashing the slanted report that was produced by Chairman Schiff’s rigged proceeding. This unconstitutional travesty resulted in two baseless articles of impeachment that lack any support in evidence and fail even to describe any impeachable offense.”
The Partisanship Problem
Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, told the Register that the impeachment case against Trump “was not a knockdown one way or another.”
“The Democrats could in good faith, I think, claim that he committed an impeachable offense and the Republicans could in good faith claim that he didn’t,” George said. “His so-called perfect phone call with the Ukrainian president certainly wasn’t perfect; it certainly went near the line, if it didn’t go over the line.”
George said that, in this case, “the question is not whether what Trump did was proper; it was not proper. It should not have been done, but was it impeachable? And there I think the case is arguable.”
George called it a “mistake” for the Democrats to bring an impeachment case where this question “was not clear” and “where they would almost certainly not get anything resembling bipartisan support.” He said that “they came across as partisan,” especially since some Democrats “had been vowing to impeach the president from the moment he took office.”
Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College and a Register contributor, agreed with George about the perception of partisanship. He told the Register that, “with Donald Trump, what we have watched has been an impeachment intention in search of an impeachment offense.”
He argued that ever since Trump was elected in 2016 many Democrats have had an “impeachment obsession,” referencing incidents like when Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., in January 2019 vowed in strong and vulgar terms to impeach the president.
“It’s really quite remarkable and suspicious that Democrats have impeached Donald Trump not over anything that happened with Hillary Clinton and the Russians in 2016, but over a single phone call in July 2019 with the Ukrainian president regarding Joe Biden,” Kengor added. “Most Americans find that very confusing, and many rightly question whether this has been a partisan witch hunt and impeachment show trial with a predetermined verdict from the very beginning.”
Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who served as secretary for public affairs for the U.S bishops from 1969 to 1987, told the Register that “it’s hard to say” whether the president committed an impeachable offense.
“His telephone remarks to the president of Ukraine may rate as ‘high crimes,’ but they might also be
put down as simple vulgarity,” Shaw said, adding that his view of the question “is colored by the strong suspicion that other presidents have said and done worse, without being called out for it.”
But Matthew Green, a professor of politics and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that he does believe the Democrats “have made a strong case for impeachment, based on the substantial evidence of wrongdoing by the president and his aides that they have gathered.”
Impeachment Impact on Americans
George said that one effect of this process could be normalizing impeachment “whenever a president of one party is faced with a House of Representatives in the control of another party. Precedents like this promote the idea that impeachment can be used as a political tool.”
Kengor also expressed concern that “this trivializes and overly politicizes the impeachment process. Democrats rightly accuse Donald Trump of being unserious and reckless, and yet this impeachment process appeared unserious and reckless.”
Shaw noted the polarization among the American public on the matter.
“Half the American people will say, ‘That’s wonderful!’ and half will say, ‘That stinks,’” he said. “This is not what you call uniting the nation.”
George said that depending on the extent of the backlash over this impeachment, “the political parties might take a lesson from this episode that maybe we should be very careful before using the impeachment mechanism. If we disapprove of something a president has done and there’s not a clear crime that can be proven, we should probably settle for a censure.”
Green said that the impeachment process was “not likely to have much of an impact on American citizens,” because, “just as with [Bill] Clinton’s impeachment, many voters are paying little to no attention to the impeachment of Trump, and the opinions of those who are paying attention have hardly budged.”
In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that the American public is evenly divided on the impeachment question — 48% to 48%. And Gallup polling has found that the president’s approval rating has risen six percentage points to 45%, since the impeachment inquiry was launched.
Shaw, a spokesman for the USCCB during the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon, said that in some ways this impeachment process was like “déjà vu” and that he was “particularly struck by the way in which both The New York Times and The Washington Post went all-out to get Trump, as if eager to add his scalp to the items in their Pulitzer collections labeled ‘Pentagon Papers’ and ‘Richard M. Nixon.’”
The impeachment process against Nixon began in 1973, but he subsequently resigned before it was completed. President Trump’s presidential impeachment is the third in the nation’s history and the first since the impeachment of Bill Clinton in December 1998 for lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Andrew Johnson faced 11 articles of impeachment in February 1868, due to, among other things, “a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited the president from removing, without Senate approval, any official who had been appointed to office ‘with the advice and consent of the Senate.’”
In both those cases, less than the required two-thirds of U.S. senators voted for impeachment, so Clinton and Johnson were able to complete their terms in office.
Asked about the partisanship of the proceedings against Trump, Green referenced the Clinton and Johnson impeachments, emphasizing that partisanship is often a component of the process.
“We’ve had two impeachments now in which the vote in the House was almost entirely along party lines,” he said. “There’s good reason to think that this pattern will continue, especially since congressional partisanship in general has only grown over time.”
Green told the Register that when looking at historical comparisons, “in terms of the overall behavior of the president, the impeachment of Johnson is the closest analogy. Both Trump and Johnson had provocative and inflammatory leadership styles, which added fuel to the impeachment fire.”
“In terms of the process in Congress, the closest analogy is Clinton’s impeachment,” Green added. “In that case, as with this one, impeachment quickly became a highly partisan issue, and very few lawmakers in either the House or Senate crossed party lines.”
George also compared Trump’s case to Clinton’s impeachment but pointed out some key differences between the two.
“Important differences include the Republicans had actual crimes that they could prove against Clinton, such as perjury, which resulted eventually in Clinton losing his law license,” he noted. “Here, of course, the Democrats were unable to allege a crime, they toyed with the idea of charging bribery or extortion … but in the end they pulled back knowing that you couldn’t meet the standard of proof that would be needed to prove those crimes.”
Another difference, George said, is that “the Republicans who were seeking Clinton’s impeachment and removal were able to attract Democratic support, not a lot, but some, which enabled them truthfully to claim that there was a bipartisan element to the impeachment; that’s not true in this case. Not a single Republican voted to impeach the president, and it’s unlikely that a single Republican in the Senate will vote to remove him.”
George did point out that one “big similarity” between the Clinton and Trump cases is the “effort to impeach a president who was presiding over peace and prosperity,” which “is always difficult.”
“Trump can point to the stock market, just as Clinton did, which has risen 10,000 points since the president took office three years ago,” he said. “Clinton did the same thing; he pointed to the increase in stock-market values, overall wealth.”
Overall, George believes that the impeachment has backfired on the Democrats and views Speaker Pelosi’s delay in transmitting the articles to the Senate immediately as an attempt to minimize damage.
“Politically, Pelosi always feared that this impeachment effort would backfire,” he said. “She only went forward with it when she could no longer resist the hotter heads in her party. It became impossible. They became too forceful and powerful; now what she feared appears to be coming true: There is a backlash.”
Pelosi told The Washington Post in March that she was against impeachment unless “there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.”
“It has backfired, and now she’s trying to minimize the damage; and one possible way of doing that, she’s thinking, is to delay as long as possible or perhaps not ever transmit the articles to the Senate for a trial where he will be acquitted,” George said. “I don’t think that that strategy on Pelosi’s part will work. I think the public will probably respond even more negatively to that stratagem then to going ahead and having a trial at which the president is acquitted.”
Prayers Amid Division
For her part, Pelosi called the impeachment move a “prayerful” decision that she was “heartbroken” over, but she had to quell some House Democrats’ cheers and applause during the vote and has faced accusations of partisanship. Such accusations appear to sting: Earlier in December, Pelosi bridled when fielding a reporter’s question about whether she “hates” the president, insisting that her Catholic faith precludes her from hating anybody and stating that she prays for him instead.
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway told EWTN News Nightly this week that President Trump “wants prayers for healing” amid the divisive impeachment debate.
The U.S. bishops have been silent on the impeachment process, with the exception of Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island.
He tweeted last week: “Used to be that the impeachment of the president signaled a national crisis. Now it’s become so very partisan that it’s just a political sideshow. Our leaders have to do better. We need to pray for our country.”
Bishop Tobin later added that he was “not taking a stance on whether or not the president should be impeached and/or convicted. Just saying that the process is so partisan, so divisive — from both sides of the aisle — that it’s disconcerting.”
Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.