If impeachment won’t fly, consider GOP excommunication
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No one yet knows whether Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE has committed acts that warrant impeachment. Investigations continue, and even should they confirm what the president’s harshest critics allege, the machinery of impeachment is cumbersome and slow — so awkward that it has never resulted in the removal of a president from office — although it has triggered resignation.

Furthermore, Trump is safe as long as any substantial number of Republicans wish to keep him in office. Impeachment itself, by the House of Representatives, requires a simple majority vote, but conviction in the Senate demands a supermajority of two-thirds. So even if the Democrats retake the House and the Senate next year, absent a Democratic deluge the remaining Senate Republicans will be able to prevent Trump’s removal.

But there is a step short of impeachment that could isolate and effectively neutralize Trump, should he lose the support of his party. And it is a step that has historical precedent.

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In 1840 the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president and John Tyler for vice president. This was the famous “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” ticket that introduced modern electioneering practices. Harrison and Tyler won, but Harrison died a month after taking his oath of office.

 

No previous president had died in office, and the country wasn’t certain what Harrison’s demise meant. The original Constitution said that the powers and duties of the president would “devolve on” the vice president, but it didn’t say that the vice president would become the president. (This language awaited the 25th Amendment.)

Nor did many Whigs want Tyler to become president. He held views on crucial subjects despised by the party’s mainstream. A Virginian, he had been paired with Ohioan Harrison to provide sectional balance. In the nineteenth century the vice presidency was more often a step to oblivion than to the White House, and had anyone at the Whig convention dreamed that Tyler might become president, he would have been immediately disqualified. After Harrison’s death some of the Whigs referred to Tyler as “His Accidency” — others simply continued to call him the vice president.

Congressional Whigs, led by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, made clear that they expected Tyler to fall in line with the party’s agenda. First up was a new national bank, to replace the Bank of the United States killed by Andrew Jackson, the bête noire of the Whigs. Clay guided a bill chartering a new bank through Congress only to see Tyler veto it, on decidedly Jacksonian states’-rights grounds. Clay reworked the bill and won passage a second time. Tyler vetoed it again.

At this point Clay and the other Whigs concluded that Tyler was definitely not one of them. Tyler’s cabinet resigned en masse, but for one holdout. The Whig congressional caucus gathered and voted to cast Tyler out of the party. “The conduct of the president has occasioned bitter mortification and deep regret,” a statement issued by the caucus declared. “Those who brought the president into power can be no longer, in any manner or degree, justly held responsible or blamed for the administration of the executive branch of the government.”

The excommunication left Tyler isolated and impotent, a chief executive without a party. Domestically he accomplished nothing to speak of. In foreign affairs Daniel Webster, the sole member of his cabinet not to resign, negotiated a treaty with Britain that tidied up border and other issues. After the 1844 election brought a victory for the aggressively expansionist Democrat James K. Polk, lame duck Tyler caught the wave and signed a joint resolution offering annexation to the republic of Texas.

But otherwise, he was soon forgotten. He retired to his Virginia plantation, which he sardonically rechristened as “Sherwood Forest,” in honor of his outlaw political status. And he withdrew from public life.

Today’s Republicans might borrow a page from the Whigs of the 1840s, should a majority of the GOP become alienated from Trump. Like Tyler, Trump is an outlier in the party that put him in office; on policy grounds he might as easily have run for the Democratic nomination last year as the Republican.

The Tyler solution is neat, requiring no gearing up of the impeachment machinery and raising no constitutional questions of what qualifies as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It could be done entirely within the Republican Party, involving no embarrassing negotiating with the Democrats. And it would allow many party members to redeem the principles and consciences they mortgaged in supporting Trump in the first place.

It’s not a perfect answer, of course. It would leave Trump in charge of American foreign policy, which in the twenty-first century is a much bigger deal than was in the nineteenth. Conceivably it could provoke Trump to adventurism abroad to offset his incapacity at home.

But there is no guarantee he won’t engage in adventurism even without such provocation. And the same institutional forces that constrain him now would continue to do so, only more effectively, since both parties would oppose him.

Indeed, a Tyler solution could have the opposite effect. After Trump spun his wheels for a while, he might conclude that public service is as much beneath him as he thought it was during the first 68 years of his life. He has never had a long attention span, and he might decide that a year or two of being president is enough.

H.W. Brands teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of various books on American history. Follow him on Twitter @hwbrands


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