by Edward Bernton*
Let’s stop beating around the bush: President Trump’s behavior threatens U.S. national security, and directly serves the interests of adversaries such as Russia and China.
While the investigation of the hidden elements of Trump phone calls and “deals” unfolds, there is one action which the U.S. Congress, starting in the House of Representatives, should consider in advance of impeachment: Donald Trump must be censured by Congress for taking actions which threaten the national security and critical interests of the United States.
And it isn’t just Trump alone. If facts support participation in his actions by Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, they should also be censured.
Even though censure at its heart is only a piece of solemn political theater, it provides one last chance to show the President and his key enablers that his actions have real consequences.
Too much even for Republicans
This is especially important for Republicans. If censure were to gain significant Republican votes, it would demonstrate to Trump that even his Praetorian Guard in the Senate sets limits when the security of the nation is at risk.
A Censure is a condemnation of behavior adopted by one or both houses of Congress against either a member of the U.S. Congress, a sitting President, a federal judge or an executive branch official.
The process to censure a sitting member of Congress is in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, section 5). Censure of non-members of Congress is not formally defined, but has ample precedent.
On three occasions, the U.S. House or Senate has passed resolutions which censured a President for abuse of power: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan and William Taft. A majority vote by either chamber is required.
Since Nixon’s presidency, several presidents have been subject to unsuccessful censure attempts, which in Nixon’s and Clinton’s cases, called for resignation.
Going for censure now deliberately separates the moral and legal judgment (=censure) from the political calculation (= impeachment).
It should also be emphasized that a censure based purely on national security concerns has potential bipartisan appeal. Not only is it subsequently harder to run on “America First” once you have been censured for profound neglect of this most critical of presidential duties, it is also emphasizes a key reason for impeachment (to avoid ongoing risks to the nation’s security).
Sending a message
Traditionally, when the House has censured a member, the member had to stand in the chamber and listen as the resolution was being read. If Trump’s actions compromising U.S. national security were condemned in front of the full house, it would send a dramatic message in this age of disinformation and division — even if the chair marked for the President is empty.
Even deeply conservative Senators now have concerns, often unvoiced, about Trump’s chaotic approach to national security issues. They may want to put in some guard-rails for the preservation of our democracy as it careens with President Trump down an uncharted path.
Censure also sends a timely and invaluable message to our allies around the world, highlighting that this country has not abandoned constitutional democracy in the face of a totalitarian-style barrage of disinformation that is advanced daily by our highest official.
A stepping stone
Censure by itself, while clearly attainable in the House, is only a first step. It does not spare us the work of impeachment, perhaps on broader grounds of unfitness for office.
Without impeachment, can we imagine, given Trump’s record, his future behavior if defeated in November 2020, while he remains with the full powers of the office at his disposal for two more months?
Can anyone truly imagine him supervising the transition of executive power during that period, as have all his predecessors? As opposed to ordering an investigation of a “corrupt election”?
Meanwhile, Americans have more than a little Trump fatigue. Perhaps even his supporters. It is Trump all day and every day. Threat by threat, insult by insult, tweet by tweet.
An effective disinformation campaign may require more subtlety than Trump now has at his command. A censure by Congress could plant the seeds for a national dialogue about how we govern ourselves, and whether a President can put himself beyond the rule of law.
And it will encourage, at last, those many civil servants whose allegiance remains to the constitution, not to the chief executive himself.
*Physician who has worked for more than 25 years in the field of clinical pharmacology and early-phase drug development. He is a retired U.S. Army officer.