For the second time in living memory, a much-debated and highly debatable impeachment of a president of the United States is ending with more a whimper than a bang.
What are the lessons of these past weeks, particularly in light of the similar political storm involving President Bill Clinton in 1999?
To succeed, the offenses that drive impeachment must represent serious transgressions to merit the constitutional mandate of “high crimes and misdemeanors” — enough to draw support from across political lines.
In the trials of Clinton and President Donald Trump, serious errors of judgment got the presidents into trouble. Clinton lied about his extramarital relationships and disgraced his office; Trump selfishly abused his powers by asking a foreign leader to dig up dirt on one of his political opponents.
The judgment of senators was that neither rose to the level of an impeachable offense. This is a precedent that ought to give pause to leaders of Congress in the future. Wrongdoing, lying or cheating, even bringing disgrace to the Oval Office, are not enough.
There must be bipartisan support for the drastic remedy of removing a president from office. At the same time, impeachment by the House is a significant rebuke.
It’s important to remember that one of the counts against Clinton — obstruction of justice — ended in acquittal in a 50-50 vote of senators. The key vote last week to avoid calling further witnesses in the Senate was 51-49. Two-thirds were needed to convict, but these are not votes of approval, representing any consensus that the presidents in question did nothing wrong.
In both cases, some senators crossed party lines but not enough to embrace Clinton’s removal or an open-ended array of testimony about Trump’s errors regarding Ukraine.
A key vote this time was that of the highly respected senator from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander.
The retiring Republican member criticized Trump’s actions but voted against calling witnesses. In a time of political polarization, that might make both sides unhappy. But it’s probably where most thoughtful Americans will end up. Louisiana's two senators, both Republicans, voted with Alexander, but they're still looking at reelection campaigns, and have failed to speak out against Trump's errors.
We agree with The Wall Street Journal: “Mr. Trump was wrong to ask Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, and wrong to use U.S. aid as leverage. His call with Ukraine’s president was far from ‘perfect.’ It was reckless and self-destructive, as Mr. Trump often is.”
Alexander pointed out that the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of senators to convict and remove a president. That today’s process failed to generate sufficient support across party lines — even given the president’s reckless conduct — ought to be a warning that impeachment must be considered a very last resort.