Country above party: How the Founders designed impeachment to protect the republic

Country above party: How the Founders designed impeachment to protect the republic
© Greg Nash

If we could travel back in time and sit down over tea with James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington or Alexander Hamilton, we would come away with a fresh perspective on their original intent for including impeachment of a president as a constitutional safety valve for the nation.

There are four broad principles the Founders would argue are important. 

1. The Founders intended impeachment would overturn an election

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My Republican friends are anxious to argue it would be inappropriate to impeach the president now — that voters, and not Congress, should make that decision on Nov. 3, 2020. They suggest the president should not be impeached and removed from office since that would, in effect, overturn the results of the 2016 election.

While Republicans are correct to affirm the value of the electoral process, to suggest that Congress should turn a blind eye toward misdeeds by a president and simply wait for an upcoming election ignores the original intent of the founders. Clearly, the Constitution addresses both elections and impeachment.

Impeachment is a congressional remedy to a president engaging in “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Founders intended that some presidential misbehavior couldn’t — and shouldn’t — wait until the next election, but that Congress should, in the interests of putting the nation’s interests first, have the remedy to remove a duly elected president from office. 

To suggest otherwise, and to argue that impeachment and removal should never be exercised because there’s always a new election coming, is to put political interests above national interests and ignore the Constitution.

James Madison would be so jolted by such a philosophy he would likely have spilled his tea on his lap. Impeachment is an important and necessary safety measure instituted by the Founders.

2. Congress has the right to conduct executive oversight

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Our founders wisely established three co-equal branches of government, each with separate and distinct roles and responsibilities. As part of an impeachment procedure by Congress, the executive branch is obligated, in response to validly issued congressional subpoenas, to produce documents and allow testimony of federal employees to permit the facts and truth to come to the light of day.

A president who attempts to stonewall and assert absolute power over Congress, rather than recognize the legitimate role of Congress as a co-equal branch of government, is inconsistent with the intent of the Constitution, and with a constitutional understanding of the role of the president. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE’s dangerous and faulty “interpretation” of Article II of the Constitution, that “I have to the right to do whatever I want as president,” is what we would expect from the lips of an autocratic dictator, not from the duly elected president of a free constitutional republic. Such an expansive view of the powers of the presidency is simply not in the Constitution, which carefully outlines and limits the rights of the president.

The founders would be appalled by President Trump’s encroachment of congressional rights, and so should Congress. Benjamin Franklin would remind us that we have a republic, “if we can keep it.”

3. The Senate should consider evidence without prejudice

The Constitution states that “the Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments.” In this role, the Senate is functioning as an independent jury, and is responsible to thoughtfully review the evidence presented by the House.

Thus, it is shocking and highly disturbing that the Republican leadership of the Senate appears to have no intention of acting as an impartial jury. Instead, it has already telegraphed its predetermined verdict, which maintains loyalty to the president and the Republican Party rather than to the nation and the constitutional process of impeachment.

It is a sad day for America when the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump allies throw jabs at Bolton over book's claims GOP confident of win on witnesses Collins Senate bid threatens to spark GOP rift in Georgia MORE, publicly states that “everything I do during this, I will be coordinating with White House counsel.” In other words, McConnell is essentially the jury foreman; he is proudly stating that the Senate trial of the president will be done in full cooperation and coordination with the accused 

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP confident of win on witnesses GOP Foreign Affairs leaders join pushback against potential troop drawdown in Africa Republicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight MORE, recently stated his shocking verdict before a Senate trial: “I have made up my mind. I'm not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”

The Founders would be appalled by this breach of the Constitution, which places personal and political party loyalty above the nation’s interests, facts, evidence and constitutional responsibilities.

4. National interests are being sacrificed by political party loyalty

When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there was no such thing as a political party. The Constitution provided the framework for the embryonic nation to thrive and protect against fears of the Founders of creating a new monarchy. This was foremost in their minds when they deliberated on the role of the president. But the Founders never anticipated the rise of political parties and factions. Unfortunately, the rise of parties has often led to the sacrifice of national interests to party interests — something we’re witnessing today.

In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson attempted to heal the breach created by parties, and stir Americans to the greater good of the nation. He declared that “we have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” Sadly, such a philosophy is covered today by a thick layer of dust.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham recently stated that “the Republicans have basically become a monarchist party. Trump is their king, and their king right or wrong.” The Revolutionary War generation would be aghast at the position of the Republican Party in support of the president, despite evidence that he has abused the powers of the office.

Meacham further noted that “right now, many Republicans are following a man, whatever the facts may be.” It’s a sad commentary that party loyalty has trumped “America first.”

If the GOP-led Senate votes to acquit the president, it will send a message that a president can use the levers of power to persuade a foreign government to meddle in our elections. An acquittal will be an affirmation that it’s more important to tweet one’s desired political narrative regardless of its connection to facts and truth. An acquittal will undoubtedly unleash President Trump to continue to stretch the bounds of propriety in the 2020 presidential election. And finally, an acquittal will represent the supremacy of one man and the GOP over against truth and the nation’s interests.

History is watching the drama unfolding in Washington, D.C., and will judge President Trump and his Republican enablers harshly. Impeachment should be about America first, not loyalty to a would-be king or political party.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the author of “101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other — and What It Means to Us.” He is the founder of PresidentialHistory.com. Follow him on Twitter @PresHistory.