Politics & Policy

Laurence Tribe’s Impeachment Hysteria

Tribe discusses impeaching President Trump on MSNBC (image via YouTube)
The Harvard Law professor’s arguments for removing President Trump from office have grown increasingly unhinged.

In a way, you can’t blame conservatives for thinking the fix is in on impeachment. A broad swathe of the liberal intelligentsia has been hell-bent on removing Donald Trump from office since before Day One of his presidency. The worst among them seem to have taken a cue from Marlon Brando in The Wild One: What are the charges? “Whaddya got?”

Former labor secretary Robert Reich says we should impeach Trump for “abridging the freedom of the press” by . . . calling the media names and “choosing who he invites to news conferences.” In his rushed-to-publication tome, The Case for Impeachment, American University’s Allan J. Lichtman argues that Trump can be removed for the “crime against humanity” of global-warming skepticism.

Are these really the sorts of offenses that qualify as “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”? To divine the meaning of that phrase, it would help to have the guidance of a preeminent constitutional scholar — someone such as Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, whose treatise American Constitutional Law has been “cited more than any other legal text since 1950.”

Unfortunately, Trump’s election seems to have rattled Tribe hard enough to knock loose both his constitutional standards and his sense of proportion. The dean of con-law professors has spent the administration’s opening months frantically hurling charges at Trump, and managing mainly to impeach his own reputation in the process.

Impeachment “Should Begin On Inauguration Day,” Tribe declared in December; by January 28, he had concluded that Trump “must be impeached for abusing his power and shredding the Constitution more monstrously than any other president in American history” — pretty impressive for a man entering the second week of his presidency.

In the first months of Trump’s tenure, Tribe floated everything from violations of the Emoluments Clause to the “cruel brand of bigotry” that supposedly motivates the travel ban to a State Department blogpost touting the “winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago, even suggesting that the president could be defenestrated on the basis of a single tweet: his March 4 claim that Obama had his wires tapped” in Trump Tower. When law professor Johnathan Turley laughed off the idea on Morning Joe, back in March, Tribe had a mini-conniption on Twitter: “Using power of WH to falsely accuse [Obama of an] impeachable felony does qualify as an impeachable offense whether via tweet or not,” he huffed.

When it was Bill Clinton’s political life on the line, Tribe nearly threw his back out trying to raise the constitutional bar for removal.

What’s funny about all this is, when it was Bill Clinton’s political life on the line, Tribe nearly threw his back out trying to raise the constitutional bar for removal. In his November 1998 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Tribe insisted that “an impeachable offense must itself severely threaten the system of government or constitute a grievous abuse of official power or both.” Perjury and obstruction to cover up an illicit affair weren’t nearly grave enough.

Hell, back then even murder was a close call in Tribe’s eyes, if the president did the deed himself, for personal reasons. In his testimony, Tribe emphasized the fact that “when Vice President Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in July 1804 . . . Burr served out his term, which ended in early 1805,” without getting impeached. “There may well be room to argue,” Tribe grudgingly conceded, that a contemporary president could be impeached for an extracurricular homicide — but that exception “must not be permitted to swallow [the] rule.” Whack a guy in Weehawken and we might have to let you get away with it; lie about him on Twitter, though, and you’ve got to go.

Charges of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” are often just a debater’s dodge, used to change the subject from the president’s behavior to his critics’ alleged hang-ups. Spend any time following Laurence Tribe on social media, though, and you’ll begin to think of it as an actual, clinical condition.

It turns out that Donald J. Trump isn’t the only septuagenarian who’s too excitable to be trusted with a Twitter account. Tribe’s feed has become a “vector of misinformation and conspiracy theories on Twitter,” as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan puts it. The distinguished professor of constitutional law has become a sucker for crackpot theories about the Trump-Russia connection, and a fan of those who spread them, such as “the incomparable Louise Mensch.” “Incomparable” is right. Mensch, the “paranoid bard of the age of Trump,” claims, among other things, that Vladimir Putin had Andrew Breitbart assassinated, and that “the Marshal of the Supreme Court” has notified President Trump of secret impeachment proceedings that are already underway. (I like to think that the mysterious “Marshal” sports a Stetson and swaggers around like Raylan Givens.)

More conventional grounds for impeachment emerged in May, when the president sacked FBI director James Comey over “this Russia thing.” As that story was breaking, Tribe took to the Washington Post op-ed page to insist that “Trump must be impeached” for obstruction of justice. Trump’s actions, Tribe argued, read like a replay of the charges against Richard Nixon: “making misleading statements to, or withholding material evidence from, federal investigators or other federal employees . . . [and] dangling carrots in front of people who might otherwise pose trouble for one’s hold on power.” “To say that this does not in itself rise to the level of ‘obstruction of justice,’” Tribe thundered, “is to empty that concept of all meaning.”

Not quite: Reasonable legal minds differ about whether Trump’s behavior rises to that level. Besides, those charges also read like a replay of the rap against Clinton. And as Tribe stressed during that imbroglio, whether obstruction is impeachable depends in part on how serious a thing the president was trying to cover up. It’s entirely possible that further investigation won’t yield evidence of collusion, and the entire episode will end up looking less scandalous than Clinton’s romp with Monica Lewinsky. By Tribe’s own indulgent standard, then, without “the threat of substantial harm to the nation required to establish a high crime or misdemeanor,” Trump should get a pass.

As it happens, the scope of the impeachment power is considerably broader than partisans such as Tribe led people to believe back when they were trying to save Clinton’s hide. But that’s the problem with tailoring your constitutional interpretations to the political needs of the moment: As Tribe put it in 1998, it’s “short-sighted . . . to approach the task of defining ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ from a narrowly result-oriented perspective,” because you “may live to regret” the standard you’ve set when the presidency changes hands.

READ MORE:

Team Trump Cannot Fear the I-Word

The Architecture of Regime Change

Trump Will Probably Be Impeached if Republicans Lose the House

Most Popular

U.S.

In Defense of Coleman Hughes

Picture the scene: A young man walks into a congressional hearing to offer witness testimony. His grandfather was barbarically brutalized by people who are now long dead. The nation in which he resides built its wealth of his grandfather’s brutalization. The question: Should his fellow citizens pay the young ... Read More
Film & TV

Toy Story 4: A National Anthem

The Toy Story franchise is the closest thing we have to an undisputed national anthem, a popular belief that celebrates what we think we all stand for — cooperation, ingenuity, and simple values, such as perpetual hope. This fact of our infantile, desensitized culture became apparent back in 2010 when I took a ... Read More
Education

College Leaders Should Learn from Oberlin

Thanks to their social-justice warrior mindset, the leaders of Oberlin College have caused an Ohio jury to hit it with $44 million in compensatory and punitive damages in a case where the school couldn't resist the urge to side with its “woke” students against a local business. College leaders should learn ... Read More
Elections

Joe and the Segs

Joe Biden has stepped in it, good and deep. Biden, if he has any hope of ever being elected president, will be dependent on residual goodwill among African Americans from his time as Barack Obama’s loyal and deferential vice president — so deferential, in fact, that he stood aside for Herself in 2016 even ... Read More
Film & TV

Fosse/Verdon and the Dismal #MeToo Obsession

In the final episode of Fosse/Verdon, one of the two titular characters, Bob Fosse, is shooting one of the greatest films of all time. The other, Gwen Verdon, is having a quarrel with her unspeakably dull boyfriend about whether he approves of her performing in a road-show production of a Broadway musical. These ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Madcap Caution of Donald Trump

The worry last week was that the Trump administration was ginning up fake intelligence about Iran blowing up oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz to justify a war against Iran. Then, this week, President Donald Trump said the Iranian attacks weren’t a big deal. The episode is another indication of the ... Read More