The case for impeachment over censure for President Donald Trump

Censure — which the Chicago Tribune editorial board is calling for instead of impeachment — is a form of shaming. But this president cannot be shamed.

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President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump

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President Donald Trump tried to shake down the leader of Ukraine for personal political gain, putting what’s best for America second.

About that, we and that other big Chicago newspaper are in agreement.

But nothing else.

Editorials bug


To our thinking, a president who sells out the best interests of his country to dirty up a political rival is guilty of the very essence of an impeachable offense. He has betrayed his country. Regardless of the political fallout, he should be removed from office.

The Chicago Tribune, though, argued in an editorial last week that the House and Senate should do nothing more than vote to censure the president. Censure, said the other paper, would have been sufficient punishment for President Bill Clinton, who was impeached in 1998, and it would be sufficient punishment now for Trump.

All offenses are not equal

Quiz time, readers:

One president held up nearly $400 million in American military aid to a vulnerable ally, Ukraine. This endangered the security of Ukraine, which worries every waking hour about being overrun by Russia, and, by extension, endangered the security of the United States. The president did this to compel Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, who might be his Democratic opponent for re-election next November. He also wanted Ukraine to announce an investigation into a baseless claim that Ukraine had interfered, on behalf of Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election. He released the military aid only when he feared being caught.

This president then compounded his offenses. He made every effort, which continue to this day, to block an investigation into his misconduct. He has ordered current and former aides not to testify before Congress. He has attempted to trash the reputations of those who have testified, including war heroes and career diplomats with impeccable records. He has ordered that documents be kept from Congress. And he has lied constantly about what he did and why he did it, even as the real facts have been revealed.

The other president lied under oath about having sex with an intern.

Which of these two presidents, readers, committed the greater offense?

Censuring doesn’t fly

In 1998, we argued that President Clinton should be censured but not impeached. The Tribune argued the same. We wrote that Clinton’s transgressions were “petty, personal crimes” that brought “disgrace and dishonor on him,” but they were not “high crimes” of the kind envisioned by our nation’s Founding Fathers.

That argument doesn’t fly this time.

If extorting an ally to gain an advantage in the 2020 election doesn’t rise to the level of impeachable conduct, what does? If playing games with our nation’s global security to score personal political favors does not amount to “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” what else did the writers of the Constitution have in mind?

Should we all just get over it and hope for the best in the next election?

Trump almost certainly will be impeached in the House, where Democrats are in control, and found not guilty in the Senate, where Republicans are in control, allowing him to claim vindication.

At first glance, this implies a kind of equivalency in the arguments for and against Trump, but it’s a false equivalency. The case for impeachment is solid. The case in defense of Trump’s behavior is miserably weak. It relies not on facts but on spinelessness.

Trump knows he can do anything to Republican members of the Senate. He’s a star and they’ll let him do it. He can grab them by the voters.

A shameless president

But even if, for the sake of argument, censure rather than impeachment might normally be appropriate and sufficient punishment, it would be pointless given this president. Censure is a form of shaming, but this president cannot be shamed. That would require an ability for honest self-appraisal.

Trump would turn censure on its head in his usual way — “I know you are but what am I” — and revel in the fact that he was not even impeached. He would misrepresent every factual finding and judgment and pick up where he never left off, un-chastised.

We don’t question the high-mindedness behind the Tribune’s call for censure rather than impeachment. This is not a case of a conservative editorial page coming to the knee-jerk defense of a Republican president. And we share the Tribune’s concern that impeachment could further polarize a country that already is deeply divided.

It’s good that Chicago is served by competing editorial pages that look at the world in different ways. That’s why we’re distressed that a hedge fund with a history of gutting newspapers, Alden Global Capital, bought a big ownership stake in the Tribune two weeks ago.

We just think the Trib’s got it wrong this time, just as they got it wrong in 2016 when they endorsed the libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, which was a gift to Trump.

Another gift to Trump

Censuring Trump now, rather than impeaching him, would be another gift.

The president compromised our nation’s best interests for pure political self-profit, as baldly as a Chicago alderman holding up a zoning change for a bribe.

Trump has brought impeachment upon himself.

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