Presidential censure card is the joker in the deck
© Greg Nash

Within a week of each other in July, two opinion pieces were published by disparate sources urging Congress to censure President Donald J. Trump. The first, “The Case for Censuring the President,” by MSNBC analyst and Daily Beast columnist Jonathan Alter, appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Post (July 19). The second, “A Censurable Disgrace,” was the lead editorial in the conservative Weekly Standard (July 20).

Both broadsides semi-concede that censure is not a recognized form of punishment by Congress when it comes to presidents. Nevertheless, both authors pursue the ruse of playing the joker as if it were a trump card.


Alter’s column asserts that censuring the president is akin to the Senate censure of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) in 1954 for bringing the Senate “into dishonor and disrepute.” Alter argues that President TrumpDonald John TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat MORE, likewise, “has brought his office into dishonor and disrepute” by “his craven performance opposite Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.” Alter says Trump’s behavior presents a gift to House Democrats who do not want to campaign on impeachment in the mid-term elections. If they promise instead to censure the president if they retake control of the House, it would appeal to more voters than the perceived threat of trying “to undo the 2016 election.”  

The Weekly Standard editorial zeroes in on the same outrageous performance by Trump in Helsinki as the basis for its call to censure him. In this instance, however, the editors are not interested in gifting Democrats, but rather in giving congressional Republicans a harmless means of expressing their collective outrage over a president seeming to capitulate to a foreign power. The editorial goes on to mention that only one president, Andrew Jackson, has ever been censured by Congress. It fails to mention that Democrats expunged the censure from the Journal when they subsequently took control of the Senate. Nevertheless, the Weekly Standard editors think “it would be no small thing for congressional Republicans to declare, in a formal manner, that a president who coddles and defends an anti-American despot doesn’t deserve their support.”

Both pieces hopscotch between boxes of censure as legitimate and censure as symbolic. Alter alternates between saying “it has no legal force,” and then calling it “an official reprimand of the president.” The Weekly Standard calls it “largely symbolic,” but then turns around and be-knights it as “a formal censure” -- imbuing it with a cloak of legal sanction.

A simple dictionary search of censure yields such synonyms as: condemn, criticize, blame, reprehend and rebuke. “Official reprimand” is only mentioned as a secondary definition. Is all this adroit sashaying nothing more than semantical tail-chasing? The answer is no: words have different meanings in different contexts.

The term censure has specific meaning in Congress and that is a form of punishment meted out to members charged with ethical misconduct –one step short of expulsion. This is done under the authority given to Congress by the Constitution to “punish its Members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.”    

The only power of Congress to punish a president under the Constitution is the power of impeachment and removal from office upon conviction –a bicameral responsibility with a super-majority vote of the Senate required to convict and remove. To pretend that lesser punishments of a president are somehow implicit under the impeachment clause is belied by the fact that such a gambit was tried and failed in the matter of impeaching President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonEx-CIA chief calls Trump intel shakeup a 'virtual decapitation' of the intelligence community Meghan McCain after Gaetz says Trump should pardon Roger Stone: 'Oh come on' Enlightening the pardon power MORE. The Democrats in the House asked that they be allowed to offer a censure resolution as a substitute for the articles of impeachment. Their attempt was ruled non-germane and the ruling was upheld on appeal.

All this is not to say that Congress doesn’t have a right to criticize a president for bad conduct or policies. Such expressions of disapproval are common in the form of “sense of Congress” resolutions. For instance, on July 19 the Senate voted 98-0 for a sense of the Senate resolution against turning any current or former U.S. officials over to the Putin government for questioning. Some news outlets called it a “rebuke” of President Trump, which it was indirectly given his initial favorable response to Putin’s suggestion of such an arrangement.

The point is, Congress always has ways to criticize a president without resorting to the bogus and misleading card of censure. That a respected journalist and journal should suggest censure as a political safety valve for each party makes it all the more suspect as a formal means of admonishment.

Don Wolfensberger, is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee. He is author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays” (forthcoming in October). The views expressed are solely his own.