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Democrats keep censure for Trump on the table

House Democrats are eyeing a move to censure President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE as a possible alternative to impeaching a president they have accused of gross wrongdoing while in office.

A censure resolution — essentially a public reprimand — lacks the teeth of impeachment’s intrinsic threat to remove a sitting president. But supporters say it would send a clear and immediate message to voters that Democrats are taking seriously their constitutional responsibility to be a check on executive misconduct.

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The censure consideration comes at a time when Democrats are moving forward with other congressional tools to go after Trump administration officials. The House is expected to vote next week to hold Attorney General William BarrBill BarrNew DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Five federal inmates scheduled for execution before Inauguration Day MORE in contempt for declining to comply with a subpoena for special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s full report and related evidence. 

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaBiden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Calif.), who’s calling for immediate censure of Trump, said it would send a warning to future administrations that Congress won’t sit idle in the face of presidential malfeasance.

And unlike impeachment, which requires overwhelming Senate support, the Democratic-controlled House could censure Trump without a single Republican on board.

“The advantage of that is it can be done with the House,” he said. “We can hold the president accountable and say that his actions are unethical and he’s engaged in blatant misconduct and that there can be some accountability for future presidents.”

“It’s a permanent mark on the president’s record,” Khanna added.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have been out in front on censure. They proposed the punitive measure after Trump defended the white nationalists who staged deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and the following year then-CBC Chairman Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondClyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Biden: 'Difficult decision' to staff administration with House, Senate members Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet MORE (D-La.) introduced a censure resolution in the GOP-controlled House condemning Trump after the president referred to some developing nations, including those in Africa, as “shithole countries.”

More recently, Rep. Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenDe Blasio mum on whether he'll block sale of Mets to controversial investor Two ethics groups call on House to begin impeachment inquiry against Barr Jewish lawmakers targeted by anti-Semitic tweets ahead of election: ADL MORE (D-Tenn.) floated censure in March, after the release of Mueller’s report on Russia’s election meddling.

The idea hasn’t caught on with Democratic leaders, but Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObama chief economist says Democrats should accept smaller coronavirus relief package if necessary The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? MORE (D-Calif.) — who is under increasing pressure to show results as House Democrats pursue a series of aggressive investigations into potential presidential misconduct — said she is not ruling anything out as those probes evolve.

“Where they will lead us, we shall see,” Pelosi said last week. “Nothing is off the table.”

A censure resolution could provide an outlet for those Democrats who are growing increasingly impatient with the pace of the investigations, which have been hampered by the administration’s stonewalling. The standoffs with the White House have largely moved to the courts, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-N.Y.) said last week that he doesn’t expect those cases to be fully resolved until September or October.

The contempt vote for Barr could also relieve some pressure — for the time being — among Democrats demanding strong action.

Yet there are risks involved with censure, according to a number of former Democratic lawmakers watching the saga unfold.

“The advantage is it perhaps becomes a strategic substitute to an impeachment process that could backfire electorally,” said former-Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden inches closer to victory Nervous Democrats don't see 2016 nightmare repeating itself Biden's debate strategy is to let Trump be Trump MORE (D-N.Y.). “The disadvantage is that it could negatively impair the investigations that House Democrats are conducting.”

“If you pass a censure resolution, I suppose an argument could be made that you no longer need these investigations because you’ve already censured the guy,” he added.

Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) warned that it’s too early to know if Trump’s actions merit censure or impeachment. He said he supports Pelosi’s go-slow approach to collect more evidence of presidential wrongdoing before taking either step.

“The most important thing to do is proceed in a way that resolves the appropriate role of the legislative branch versus the executive branch,” Pomeroy said, referring to the courts. “Getting that resolved will then set the stage to being able to develop a record that may or may not support a censure.”

“Doing it prematurely looks more like: ‘We really, really don’t like you.’ And a statement like that is really of no consequence,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to build a record first.”

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Censuring a president is exceedingly rare: only Andrew Jackson has been the subject of such a formal reprimand, which passed the Senate in 1834 after Jackson refused to release documents related to his efforts to deny funds to the Second Bank of the United States.

In 1860, the House passed a resolution charging President Buchanan for awarding military contracts for political ends. But while the resolution censured the Navy secretary, it offered only a “reproof” of the president. “Thus, it could be argued that the House chose a weaker reprimand for the President,” the Congressional Research Service wrote last year in a report on censure.

Presidents Lincoln, Tyler, Polk, Nixon and Clinton have also been the target of censure proposals, but those measures were never adopted.

Pelosi is no stranger to the censure process. During Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, Democrats sought instead to censure their ally in the White House — a move Republicans argued was unconstitutional. Both Pelosi and then-Rep. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden Collins urges voters to turn out in Georgia runoffs Protect America's houses of worship in year-end appropriations package MORE (D-N.Y.), now the Senate Minority Leader, believed otherwise, and took to the floor to make their case.

“The power of Congress to censure is an obvious corollary of the legislatures inherent power as a deliberative body to speak its mind,” Pelosi said at the time.

Former-Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who headed the Democrats’ campaign arm through much of the 1980s, said there are clear differences between the Clinton episode, most obviously that Pelosi is facing a Republican in the White House. Still, he said there are lessons she’s taking from those events.

“Don’t forget, she was a Democrat supporting a Democratic president. She thought that he had done something wrong, and she said she felt that he deserved censure,” Coelho said. “What she learned was that impeachment basically helped Clinton, and that censure probably wouldn’t have made any difference in any case. And I think she’s right about that.”

Censure supporters like Khanna acknowledge that they risk attacks from the left; impeachment advocates on and off Capitol Hill will surely deem a nonbinding censure resolution to be too soft.

Khanna emphasized that censuring Trump would not prevent Democrats from revisiting impeachment later. 

“It doesn’t preclude anything. It just gets something done,” he said. 

And he’s quick to point out that any impeachment effort in the House is almost certain to die in a Senate controlled by Trump’s Republican allies.

“What’s the teeth to an impeachment where the Senate acquits? I mean, there’s no teeth to that either, other than showing that you object to the president’s behavior,” Khanna said.  “[Censure] is a cleaner way of doing that.”