According to the redacted Mueller report, candidate Donald Trump, along with members of his team, on multiple occasions welcomed Russian interference on his behalf during the 2016 presidential campaign. For example, the report details a meeting between the Trump campaign chairman and a Russian intelligence asset where polling information and campaign strategy were shared.
While Mueller did not find sufficient evidence that Trump or his campaign had violated a criminal statute, the net effect was that the Trump campaign encouraged a foreign adversary to use and misrepresent stolen information on social media platforms to defraud U.S. voters. Because the presidency was won in this way, the president’s election victory brought forth nothing less than an illegitimate presidency.
Mueller presents a strong case that in addition to receiving campaign help from Russian operatives, the president obstructed justice — a crime in itself. Mueller declined to charge the sitting president because of current Department of Justice regulations that prohibit it. That policy is wrong in my opinion, and must be changed in the future when reason and rationality return to our politics.
What should be done now? There are some Democratic members in the House majority who want to put off any discussion of impeachment until after the 2020 election. They believe it will only strengthen the hand of the president, who will claim he is a victim and will respond with his mantra of, “No collusion, no obstruction, case closed.” Other Democratic members of Congress want impeachment proceedings to begin.
The political calculus not to pursue impeachment is understandable. Current polls show a majority of voters do not favor it. But critical times require exceptional leadership. Lawmakers of both parties should not blindly follow the polls but instead follow the evidence and their conscience. Politics should not rule the day. Partisan politics is what got us to this dangerous place — so dangerous, I believe, that the survival of our democracy is at risk.
Contemplate the possible behavioral problems of a Trump untethered from the law and who is frequently untethered from reality. Would we be surprised if he were to repeatedly brandish his get out of jail card while breaking, at will, democratic norms, presidential precedents and criminal statutes? Trump said early in his campaign that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Are we now at that point?
Because DOJ regulations put a president above the law while in office, I believe the only viable option available is for the House of Representatives, under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, to open its own investigation, hold public hearings and then determine if they should pursue removal of the president through impeachment. There is a trove of evidence in the Mueller report indicating Trump has committed multiple impeachable offenses, including abuse of power and lying to the American public. Both were part of the articles of impeachment brought against President Richard Nixon. This process would allow a full public review of wrongdoing, while providing Americans an opportunity to obtain a better understanding of the consequences to our national security and the lingering threat to our democracy.
If this process leads to impeaching Trump in the House of Representatives and also results in convicting him in the Senate, his illegitimacy would survive through Vice President Mike Pence’s succession to the presidency. Because the misdeeds were conducted to assure the entire Trump-Pence ticket was elected, both former candidates — Pence as well as Trump — have been disgraced and discredited. To hand the presidency to an illegitimate vice president would be to approve and reward the wrongdoing while the lingering stench of corruption would trail any Pence administration, guaranteeing an untenable presidency. If Trump is impeached, then Pence should not be allowed to become president. The vice president should resign or be impeached as well if for no other reason that he has been the chief enabler for this illegitimate president.
Alternatively, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution provides for the removal of a president. It sets forth a cumbersome procedure requiring the vice president to convince a majority of the Cabinet to recommend removal to Congress because the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office. By a two-thirds vote, Congress could then end a presidency. The removal of the president and replacement with the vice president would have the same result as if the president had been impeached. The vice president would succeed to the presidency.
In addition to these constitutional provisions, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 sets the order of officials who are in line to succeed a president, regardless of the reason. The first three officials listed are the vice president, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate. If the vice president were unable to ascend to the presidency for whatever reason — for example resignation or impeachment — then the speaker would become president. Today that individual is Rep. Nancy Pelosi. It is unknown whether she would agree to serve as president or that the majority of the House would want her to do so.
The Constitution does not require the speaker of the House actually to be a member of the House of Representatives. Under these circumstances, with the specter of a national crisis looming over the vacancy of the presidency and vice presidency simultaneously, consideration should be given by House members to draft a nationally-known individual for speaker who would appeal to the vast majority of Americans. That person, after being sworn in as speaker, would ascend to the highest office in the land. Under the provisions of the 25th Amendment, the new president would nominate a vice president, who would take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both chambers of Congress.
What if House Democrats decide not to embark on impeachment? If that were the case, I believe the public would conclude Democrats are no better than the Republicans who have enabled Trump for the past two years, putting party above country. It could hand Trump a second term. Failure to pursue impeachment is to condone wrongdoing. To condone wrongdoing is to encourage more of it. To encourage wrongdoing is to give up on the rule of law and our democracy. To give up on the rule of law and democracy invites autocracy and eventually dictatorship. History has taught us this outcome. In my lifetime, it has occurred in other places including the Soviet Union and Germany, as well as in Russia and Venezuela today.
Tom Coleman is a former Republican U.S. representative from Missouri. He has served as an adjunct professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and at American University.