Fifty-four members of the U.S. House of Representatives have recognized their constitutional duty to support an impeachment inquiry into evidence of wrongdoing on the part of President Trump. Congressman Mark Pocan, D-town of Vermont, has been among the outspoken of their number, declaring that "Congress must now do its job."
It is, in fact, the job of the Congress to hold Donald Trump to account. Special counsel Robert Mueller reinforced the point last Wednesday, when he noted: "The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president."
The alternative route is the impeachment process that is initiated by the House and completed by the U.S. Senate. Impeachment, as Mueller reminds us, is separate and apart from the criminal justice system. An impeached and convicted president is not jailed or fined. He simply goes back to the status he had before the previous election: a citizen who is not the president.
Ah, but there’s the rub. The politicians who are responsible for initiating the impeachment process get very concerned about the prospect that they might be accused of casually undoing the result of an election. This is a commendable concern, even in so stilted a democracy as that of the United States. But, in the case of Donald Trump, the concern is less consequential than his supporters would have us believe.
Let’s grant that the most compelling of the general arguments against impeachment is that congressional action to hold the commander in chief to account might upend the will of the people by undoing a presidential election result. Political figures of varying partisanships tend to agree on this point, which is one of the reasons we’re seeing it amplified as the debate about whether to impeach Trump heats up. "Democrats," griped Trump campaign aide Kayleigh McEnany, have "never stopped trying to overturn the legitimate results of the 2016 election."
Even House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler said, "Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen. You have to persuade enough of the opposition party voters, Trump voters, that you are not just trying … to reverse the results of the last election." Nadler is right when he suggests that the impeachment process must be persuasive, and that a bipartisan approach is preferable. But this notion that the impeachment of this particular president would “overturn” or “reverse” the results of the last election requires a rethink.
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Congressman Jamie Raskin, a constitutional scholar who serves on the House Judiciary Committee as a Democratic representative from Maryland, said, "From the beginning of the administration, I’ve said impeachments should not be a fetish for anybody, but it should be a taboo for nobody."
It is clear that Trump and his allies hope to render impeachment taboo by reimagining it as the president does: as “the greatest Witch Hunt in political history,” propelled by “crazy” Nancy Pelosi and the "fake news media" as "a total scam and excuse for the Dems losing the Election!" Trump likes to claim that he won a “landslide” victory in the 2016 presidential election and that “Democrats … suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.”
But that’s not what happened. Trump lost the national popular vote by 2.9 million ballots. He became president only because three states in which the majority of voters opposed his candidacy gave him narrow pluralities and a sufficient number of electoral votes to claim an Electoral College advantage. The president has no mandate upon which to build an argument against accountability.
The level of support for Trump — his percentage of the total vote — was lower than that accorded to a long list of defeated presidential contenders, including Mitt Romney in 2012, John Kerry in 2004, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Richard Nixon in 1960. It was also lower than that of both the popular-vote winner of the 2000 election (Al Gore) and that year’s Electoral College winner (George W. Bush).
Impeachment is not a tool for rectifying election results. Nor should election results serve as an argument against impeachment. (If we were to suggest that popular-vote winners ought to be immune from accountability, then Richard Nixon would have finished his second term.) But a popular-vote loser certainly should not be able to argue against impeachment on the grounds that holding him to account would countermand the message sent by the electorate. Impeaching Donald Trump and removing him from office would not overturn the will of the people. The will of the people was that Hillary Clinton should be president. She secured 65.8 million votes to Trump’s 62.9 million. If we make the reasonable assumption that the millions of voters who cast their ballots for third-party contenders were also disinclined to make “the Donald” the president, then the anti-Trump total moves closer to 73 million. Impeaching and removing Donald Trump would make him what most voters wanted him to be when they cast their ballots in 2016: a citizen who does not hold the office of president.
So Pocan got it right, practically and politically, when he said that Mueller’s statement “serves as an urgent reminder that Congress must uphold its constitutional duty to act as a co-equal branch of government and conduct oversight of the Executive Branch.”