There are two levels to the drama underway in Washington right now, and both need Congress’s focused attention. The first is whether President Trump has crossed the line into “high crimes and misdemeanors”; the second is whether Congress should put new constraints on the powers of this and future presidents.
Regarding Drama No. 1, there comes a point at which a political party corrupts itself and loses the American people’s confidence by putting its interests above the nation’s. We have seen politics trump good public policy too often in recent congresses, but this the ultimate test. Shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I wrote:
Anyone who still cares about open government, compliance with the nation’s laws, ethical behavior and good governance should watch Congress closely in the weeks and months ahead. We will soon learn whether the Republicans who control the Legislative Branch are willing to fulfill their constitutional obligation to ensure that a president - even a president from their own party - does not abuse his office.
That day of reckoning has arrived. Whether Trump’s missteps have been willful or a result of inexperience, the effect is the same: an erosion of respect for the highest office in the land, at home and abroad. There will be a cost for losing the international community’s confidence in the United States as a rational, reliable and moral force in world affairs.
Voters may be tired of career politicians, but Trump has demonstrated that the White House should not be a boot camp for learning about how government and international relations work. Trump stepped into the presidency ill-repaired for its demands and its limitations. He has acknowledged as much, but it was evident back in March 2016 when he was asked whom he consults on foreign policy. Trump responded, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things… (M)y primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”
Whether Trump’s missteps have been willful or a result of inexperience, the effect is the same: an erosion of respect for the highest office in the land...
As I noted in my previous post, impeachable offenses by a president need not be felonies in the usual sense. Some of the scholars who have studied what the Founders meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors” have concluded that even lawful breaches of ethics and betrayals of the public’s trust may violate the higher standards and special obligations that apply to people in our most important government positions.
So we have reached a historic moment for Republicans in Congress to rise above partisan politics. We will see whether the constitutional system of checks and balances still works when one party controls two and perhaps all three branches of government. The first sign of the GOP’s willingness to pass the integrity test is whether Congress finally agrees to turn over investigations of the president and his team to an impartial, independent outside prosecutor.
The second drama unfolding in Washington involves the powers and privileges of the presidency itself. Some of the standards required of all other federal employees do not apply to the president. Should they? Should presidents be required to disclose their financial interests and to completely divest from them? Should presidents be allowed to sidestep rules against nepotism? Should they be able to classify or disclose top-secret information at their own discretion? Should we look the other way when they use their offices for personal gain? Should presidents, regardless of temperament, be able to launch a nuclear first-strike without consulting anyone and with no checks and balances?
First, however, Republicans must decide how long and at what cost they are willing to tolerate on-the-job training, compulsive and vindictive tweeting read around the world, and the serious missteps of a president who has proven himself to be not only unprepared, but also untruthful, unconcerned about ethical limits, and prone to make up his own alternative facts and realities. It is not only Donald Trump’s fitness for office that is in question now; it is also the GOP’s.