Is it undemocratic to hold President Trump accountable for his efforts to undermine democracy?
Listening to GOP leaders over the weekend, you would think so. Democrats — and the evidence they have gathered in the impeachment inquiry — say Trump used U.S. military aid to pressure Ukraine officials into announcing an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his family. Increasingly, Republican leaders are prepared to abandon the notion that Trump did nothing wrong here.
Democrats “are trying to change the outcome of 2016 and influence the next one,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday morning, adding later that the impeachment effort amounts to “undoing democracy, undoing what the American public had voted for.”
His Sunday morning appearance followed a Friday tweet that made the same argument in graphic form:
63 million Americans put President Trump in office. Now 231 Washington Democrats are trying to reverse the results of the 2016 election. pic.twitter.com/P8J2OTCFoU
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) November 1, 2019
This GOP argument is breathtakingly cynical, and requires that Americans disregard most of what they have ever learned about democracy, the Constitution, and morality.
Yes, it is true that nearly 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016, and those votes should be respected. But nearly 66 million voters backed Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton — in an election that featured massive interference on Trump’s behalf by Russia. Additionally, Democrats won the House of Representatives in 2018 by a combined total of about 9.7 million votes. In a more democratic system, there is no way that Trump could be impeached — because he never would have taken office in the first place. He would have lost the election and retired full-time to Mar-a-Lago by now.
Trump sits in the White House by virtue of his win in the Electoral College, and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. But it is awkward at best and hypocritical at worst for the GOP to defend the president by appealing to Americans’ better democratic angels.
Even if Trump had won a vast — and vastly more legitimate — majority in 2016, the GOP argument suggests that impeachment itself is somehow illegitimate if it undoes the results of a prior election. That, in turn, would mean that the Founders didn’t really mean it when they wrote the Constitution to give the House of Representatives the power of impeachment, the Senate the authority to hold the impeachment trial, and the chief justice the responsibility to oversee such trials “when the president of the United States is tried.”
The Constitution gives Congress the power to impeach the president. Period. There are no exceptions in the instance that the president won the previous election — which, except in the case of Andrew Johnson — will usually be the case. There are no exceptions for the number of votes the president received in that election. And there are no exceptions for the fact that the next election is less than a year away. To suggest otherwise is to surrender Congress’ role as a co-equal branch of government, and settle instead for lapdog status. Trump might like that. But it is not how our system of government is designed.
Even if Congress were tempted to defer to the results of the 2016 election when considering impeachment, there is one other problem with the GOP defense of Trump: The 2020 election ought to be considered sacred, too.
The evidence strongly suggests that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Biden’s family because Biden is one of Trump’s leading foes in the 2020 presidential election. If that is right, it means Trump used the power of the U.S. government to put his thumb on the scales of that election, giving himself an unfair advantage to win. It was undemocratic and wrong.
So, yes, the vote in 2016 was important. But the voters of 2016 are not more important than the voters of 2020. The Americans of the near future — of now — deserve to have their rights and their voice respected every bit as much as the Americans of the near past. Impeaching Trump helps protect the rights of voters going forward, and serves as a warning to others who might be tempted to abuse their power for selfish electoral reasons. The 2016 voters had their say. Voters in 2020 should get an equal chance.
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