The presidential oath of office contains 35 words and one core promise: to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Since virtually the moment Donald J. Trump took that oath two years ago, he has been violating it.
He has repeatedly put his own interests above those of the country. He has used the presidency to promote his businesses. He has accepted financial gifts from foreign countries. He has lied to the American people about his relationship with a hostile foreign government. He has tolerated cabinet officials who use their position to enrich themselves.
To shield himself from accountability for all of this — and for his unscrupulous presidential campaign — he has set out to undermine the American system of checks and balances. He has called for the prosecution of his political enemies and the protection of his allies. He has attempted to obstruct justice. He has tried to shake the public’s confidence in one democratic institution after another, including the press, federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary.
The unrelenting chaos that Trump creates can sometimes obscure the big picture. But the big picture is simple: The United States has never had a president as demonstrably unfit for the office as Trump. And it’s becoming clear that 2019 is likely to be dominated by a single question: What are we going to do about it?
The easy answer is to wait — to allow the various investigations of Trump to run their course and ask voters to deliver a verdict in 2020. That answer has one great advantage. It would avoid the national trauma of overturning an election result. Ultimately, however, waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.
He has already shown, repeatedly, that he will hurt the country in order to help himself. He will damage American interests around the world and damage vital parts of our constitutional system at home. The risks that he will cause much more harm are growing.
Some of the biggest moderating influences have recently left the administration. The defense secretary who defended our alliances with NATO and South Korea is gone. So is the attorney general who refused to let Trump subvert a federal investigation into himself. The administration is increasingly filled with lackeys and enablers. Trump has become freer to turn his whims into policy — like, say, shutting down the government on the advice of Fox News hosts or pulling troops from Syria on the advice of a Turkish autocrat.
The biggest risk may be that an external emergency — a war, a terrorist attack, a financial crisis, an immense natural disaster — will arise. By then, it will be too late to pretend that he is anything other than manifestly unfit to lead.
For the country’s sake, there is only one acceptable outcome, just as there was after Americans realized in 1974 that a criminal was occupying the Oval Office. The president must go.
Achieving this outcome won’t be easy. It will require honorable people who have served in the Trump administration to share, publicly, what they have seen and what they believe. (At this point, anonymous leaks are not sufficient.) It will require congressional Republicans to acknowledge that they let a con man take over their party and then defended that con man. It will require Democrats and progressive activists to understand that a rushed impeachment may actually help Trump remain in office.
But if removing him will not be easy, it’s not as unlikely as it may sometimes seem. From the beginning, Trump has been an unusually weak president, as political scientists have pointed out. Although members of Congress have not done nearly enough to constrain him, no other recent president has faced nearly so much public criticism or private disdain from his own party.
Since the midterm election showed the political costs that Trump inflicts on Republicans, this criticism seems to be growing. They have broken with him on foreign policy (in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Syria) and are anxious about the government shutdown. Trump is vulnerable to any erosion in his already weak approval rating, be it from an economic downturn, more Russia revelations or simply the defection of a few key allies. When support for an unpopular leader starts to crack, it can crumble.
Before we get to the how of Trump’s removal, though, I want to spend a little more time on the why — because even talking about the ouster of an elected president should happen only under extreme circumstances. Unfortunately, the country is now so polarized that such talk instead occurs with every president. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were subjected to reckless calls for their impeachment, from members of Congress no less.
So let’s be clear. Trump’s ideology is not an impeachable offense. However much you may disagree with Trump’s tax policy — and I disagree vehemently — it is not a reason to remove him from office. Nor are his efforts to cut government health insurance or to deport undocumented immigrants. Such issues, among others, are legitimate matters of democratic struggle, to be decided by elections, legislative debates, protests and the other normal tools of democracy. These issues are not the “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the founders intended impeachment to address.
Yet the founders also did not intend for the removal of a president to be impossible. They insisted on including an impeachment clause in the Constitution because they understood that an incompetent or corrupt person was nonetheless likely to attain high office every so often. And they understood how much harm such a person could do. The country needed a way to address what Alexander Hamilton called “the abuse or violation of some public trust” and James Madison called the “incapacity, negligence or perfidy” of a president.
The negligence and perfidy of President Trump — his high crimes and misdemeanors — can be separated into four categories. This list is conservative. It does not include the possibility that his campaign coordinated strategy with Russia, which remains uncertain. It also does not include his lazy approach to the job, like his refusal to read briefing books or the many empty hours on his schedule. It instead focuses on demonstrable ways that he has broken the law or violated his constitutional oath.
Trump has used the presidency for personal enrichment.
Regardless of party, Trump’s predecessors took elaborate steps to separate their personal financial interests from their governing responsibilities. They released their tax returns, so that any potential conflicts would be public. They placed their assets in a blind trust, to avoid knowing how their policies might affect their own investments.
Trump has instead treated the presidency as a branding opportunity. He has continued to own and promote the Trump Organization. He has spent more than 200 days at one of his properties and billed taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
If this pattern were merely petty corruption, without damage to the national interest, it might not warrant removal from office. But Trump’s focus on personal profit certainly appears to be affecting policy. Most worrisome, foreign officials and others have realized they can curry favor with the president by spending money at one of his properties.
Saudi Arabia has showered the Trump Organization with business, and Trump has stood by the Saudis despite their brutal war in Yemen and their assassination of a prominent critic. A Chinese government-owned company reportedly gave a $500 million loan to a Trump-backed project in Indonesia; two days later, Trump announced that he was lifting sanctions on another well-connected Chinese company.
These examples, and many more, flout Article 1 of the Constitution, which bans federal officeholders from accepting “emoluments” from any foreign country unless Congress approves the arrangement. Madison, when making the case for an impeachment clause, spoke of a president who “might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
Then, of course, there is Russia. Even before Robert Mueller, the special counsel, completes his investigation, the known facts are damning enough in at least one way. Trump lied to the American people during the 2016 campaign about business negotiations between his company and Vladimir Putin’s government. As president, Trump has taken steps — in Europe and Syria — that benefit Putin. To put it succinctly: The president of the United States lie
d to the country about his commercial relationship with a hostile foreign government toward which he has a strangely accommodating policy.