By Frank Bowman
Among the most persistent misconceptions about impeachment under the United States constitution is that indictable criminal conduct is a prerequisite for impeachment. The prevalence of this error is easy to understand inasmuch as the textual standard for impeachable conduct is “Treason, Bribery, or other other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” — a phrase that sounds like it refers to crime of the customary sort. However, as has been repeatedly discussed on this blog and as virtually all serious students of impeachment recognize, the phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” was adopted by the Framers from British and early American impeachment practice and extended to a wide variety of non-criminal official ineptitude or misbehavior. There is powerful evidence that the Framers included conduct severely damaging to U.S. foreign policy interests in the category of impeachable behavior.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the delegates decided that presidents and other federal officers could be impeached, but they wrestled over what conduct should be impeachable. Various formulations were advanced. As the convention rounded into the home stretch, the phrase that had taken hold was “treason or bribery.”
George Mason objected because he thought “treason and bribery” far too narrow. Mason was a student of British impeachment and had authored the post-revolutionary impeachment provisions of the Virginia state constitution. He wanted a federal impeachment remedy analogous to British practice at least in the conduct it covered, even if not in the sorts of brutal personal punishments Parliament could impose.
“Treason,” Mason said, “will not reach many great and dangerous offences. Hastings is not guilty of treason.” He was referring to the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, Governor General India, just about to start in England. Mason wanted American impeachments to reach beyond the two indictable crimes of treason and bribery to important breaches of public trust in both the domestic and foreign sphere, the kinds of offenses charged against Hastings.
Mason’s solution was to add the word “maladministration” after bribery. But James Madison rose to object, saying, “So vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.”
Mason thought the matter over and came back with a compromise. Omit “maladministration” but add to treason and bribery “other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The new language passed 8 states to 3.
Mason’s choice of “high crimes and misdemeanors” was not whimsical. Rather, he lifted it from British practice where, beginning in the 1600s, Parliament increasingly (though not invariably) used this phrase to describe conduct it charged as impeachable. My study of British and American impeachments convinces me that “high crimes and misdemeanors” does not limit Congressional impeachment power to the necessarily idiosyncratic and antique list of misdeeds Parliament had addressed by 1787. Both Parliament and the Framers were acutely conscious that the sorts of dangerous public misconduct for which impeachment is a necessary remedy could not easily be described in advance. However, the Framers’ choice of “high crimes and misdemeanors” does set the baseline minimum for the scope of American impeachments. In other words, American officials are properly impeachable for at least the range of conduct covered by British practice.
A persistent theme in British impeachments was the charge that the impeached minister had pursued a policy at odds with the nation’s basic foreign policy interests. Impeachments on this ground were a constant beginning with the charges against William de la Pole in 1450 for his role in arranging the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. The Duke of Buckingham was impeached in 1626 in part for loaning English ships to the French to employ against the Protestant Huguenots at Rochelle. In 1678, the Earl of Danby was impeached for assisting King Charles in negotiations with France for British neutrality in the Franco-Dutch War. Lords Oxford, Bolingbroke, and Strafford were impeached in 1715 for their advocacy of the Treaty of Utrecht, which was widely despised as selling out Britain’s Dutch allies in favor of making accommodations with Britain’s traditional enemy France. And Warren Hastings’ 1787 impeachment, so central to George Mason’s thinking, centered on fundamental disagreements about the proper relationship of Great Britain to its Indian possessions and the states that abutted them.
Over and over again, Parliament employed impeachment to assert an authority independent of the royal executive to define the nation’s true foreign policy interests. That Congress has believed itself to have similar authority is demonstrated by the first impeachment in American history, that of Senator William Blount, charged in 1797 with conspiring to assist the British in acquiring Spanish territory in Florida. Blount was acquitted, but only because there were doubts that senators are “civil officers” subject to impeachment and because he had already resigned.
During the 1788 ratification debates on the federal constitution, James Madison insisted that a president who made a treaty that “violated the interest of the nation” and convinced the Senate to ratify it could be impeached. 3 Jonathan Elliot, The Debates in Several State Conventions of the Adoption of the Federal Constitution 500 (1827). If, in the considered opinion of the architect of the American constitution, a president can be impeached for inveigling the Senate into one bad treaty, we surely can impeach a president for heedlessly shattering a basket of good treaties and the entire intricate web of foreign relationships they support without so much as a by-your-leave.
Consider Mr. Trump’s rolling destruction of American foreign policy. (And assume that his actions flow merely from caprice or bad judgment, and are not, bizarre though it seems to say such a thing, the result of his having been compromised by Russia.)
To summarize, in the seventy-odd years since the Second World War, generations of American presidents, legislators, soldiers, and diplomats have labored to create a world order of multilateral institutions and agreements with the United States at its center. That order has averted nuclear annihilation, prevented conventional war between the major powers, secured a stable, democratic Europe and an increasingly prosperous and stable East Asia, managed the fall of Soviet communism, and overseen a fairly universal rise in human material welfare, all while maintaining the United States as the single indispensable world power. All has not been wine and roses for everybody, of course. Humanity is on the verge of destroying the world’s ecosystem through climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction. And global overpopulation and income inequality pose continuing threats to individual well-being and regional peace. However, the looming existential crises of the age can only be addressed (if they can be at all) through increased collaboration and cooperation across borders. Most importantly for present purposes, whatever else one may think about the post-World War II world order, it has been hugely advantageous for the United States, placing this country at the center of all important decisions about international trade, finance, technology, and security.
Since his election, Mr. Trump has moved steadily in the direction of unilaterally dismantling the United States’ foreign policy, trade, and security architecture by formally abandoning or denigrating every form of multilateral engagement from the Paris Climate Accords, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the Iran Nuclear Accord,to the World Trade Organization,[ to a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, to the United Nations, not to speak of our most fundamental military alliance, NATO.[ He has consistently quarreled with our oldest democratic allies, while cozying up to autocracies across the globe: Duterte’s Philippines, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, Recep Erdogan’s Turkey, and, of course, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The result is that, if allowed to continue, Trump will, singlehandedly, transform America’s position among the nations, from being the leader (however imperfect) of the free world and indispensable fulcrum in every realm of hard and soft power to a diminished, cranky, ungenerous, avowedly self-absorbed friend of tyrants and oligarchs.
It is of particular moment that Trump is taking the country down this path singlehandedly. The policies he is pursuing are not the policies of the party under whose banner he ran. They are not the policies recommended to him by the vast bulk of civilian and military leaders and experts in his administration. Indeed, as recently demonstrated by the resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis following Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw entirely from Syria and partially from Afghanistan, they are often undertaken against the explicit opposition of those persons. They do not emerge from any process of study or consultation. They proceed from his personal whims (or, though I shudder to to contemplate it, perhaps from directions or suggestions provided by Vladimir Putin), abetted by a very small coterie of courtiers. In the case of the Syrian withdrawal, the decision apparently occurred literally in the middle of a phone conversation between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan. Trump’s position on foreign policy is “l’état c’est moi.” That is not the design of the United States Constitution.
President Trump can do these things in part because Congress has, quite unwisely, acquiesced in the doubtful doctrine that, while two-thirds of the Senate must vote to ratify a treaty, a president may withdraw from it without consent of Congress or anyone else. As pernicious as this legislative timidity has been in principle, one could excuse it on the ground that Congress has assumed with some justice that presidents would be cautious, judicious, and consultative before taking so drastic a step. While that confidence has not always been justified, it generally has.
However, in Mr. Trump, the country has for the first time a president who combines a near-complete lack of understanding of history, finance, trade, military affairs, or diplomacy with supreme confidence that he, and no one else, knows exactly how to arrange matters in all these arenas. In short, the electoral system has placed in the White House the ignorant demagogue that the Framers feared at a time when the system of institutional checks they installed to deal with such an eventuality has atrophied so far as to be nearly useless. Catastrophe looms unless Congress recognizes the danger and reasserts the powers the Constitution gave it.
Some of the foreign policy damage Trump is doing could be prevented or at least ameliorated if Congress woke up and employed the tools short of impeachment at its disposal. That said, there is little question that the constitutional impeachment power includes a situation in which a president is inflicting irreparable harm on the nation’s position in the world and will not be dissuaded.