The Corner

Add Paul Ryan to the List of GOP Leaders Who Don’t Know What ‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors’ Means

Why are top Republicans so determined to cut themselves off at the knees?

The GOP believes it has a problem: President Obama calculates that it helps him and hurts Republicans to claim, falsely, that Republicans are about to impeach him, so that is what Democrats are doing. As I argued before — and it sounds as if Bill Kristol agrees — this is a foolish calculation on their part. To be clear, neither Bill, I, nor most Obama critics, nor any elected Republicans that I know of, are calling for the president’s impeachment at this point: The public case has not been made for it, and defeat would be certain in the Senate.

Yet even if you assume, as the Republican establishment appears bent on doing, that Obama is right and that his knowingly false alarm about imminent impeachment is bad for Republicans, the solution is simple: Just make it very clear that there is no plan to file articles of impeachment against Obama — not now, and not in the foreseeable future. It is already clear that that is the case to sensible people, and after a short while it will be clear to everyone — the Democrats’ cynicism will be seen for what it is.

But no, the GOP can’t leave it at that. For whatever reason they feel compelled to say not only that they will not impeach Obama but that Obama’s systematic refusal to execute the laws faithfully does not rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Constitution’s impeachment standard.

Recently, we heard Representative Bob Goodlatte, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, making this absurd assertion. Today, according to the Wall Street Journal, it was Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s turn. On impeachment, Ryan reportedly said:

I see this as sort of a ridiculous gambit by the president and his political team to try and change the narrative, raise money, and turn out their base for an upcoming election that they feel is not going to go their way… [The Republicans’ differences with the White House do] not rise to the high crime and misdemeanor level.

Wrong. To repeat, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a British term of art borrowed by the Framers, does not refer to penal offenses. It refers to what Hamilton called “the misconduct of public men, or in other words . . . the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Such misconduct need not be an indictable wrong. It could involve dereliction of duty, lies to Congress or the public about serious matters, the failure to honor an oath (such as the oath to execute the laws faithfully), and any conduct that intentionally undermines the governing framework that safeguards our liberties and security (the president, of course, takes an oath to preserve the Constitution).

It is perfectly understandable — indeed, it is wise — for Republicans to explain that there is no prospect of removing President Obama from power because you’d need lots of Democratic votes in the Senate and the Democrats will protect President Obama no matter how lawlessly he conducts himself. No one sensible would blame the Republicans for taking this position. More importantly, making that argument would highlight the president’s often outrageous lawlessness and derelictions of duty as well as the Democrats’ complicity in them.

It is, however, downright dumb to claim, as Representative Ryan, Representative Goodlatte, and other Republican leaders have done, that the president’s misconduct is not serious enough to be considered impeachable; or to posit the related claim that impeachment — the Constitution’s remedy for serious presidential lawlessness — would be a “disproportionate” response to serious presidential lawlessness. No one expects the GOP to start a fight it doesn’t have the votes to win; that’s not a good reason to pretend there’s nothing worth fighting about.

The border is being overrun and the president, far from taking action to stop it, is encouraging it. Illegal aliens are being smuggled throughout the country by the federal government without notice to the states. The president refuses to enforce the immigration laws. The president is usurping the power of Congress to confer federal benefits on aliens. The president is unilaterally rewriting Obamacare, the drug laws, and other congressional statutes that are inconvenient to him. The president willfully lied to the country to get Obamacare enacted and to get reelected. The commander-in-chief took no meaningful action to protect Americans before and during the terrorist siege of Benghazi, and then he and his administration willfully lied to the country about the cause of the massacre in order to get reelected. The president has used the federal bureaucracy to harass and punish his political opponents. Evidence of the IRS’s wrongdoing has been destroyed. Evidence about the Justice Department’s Fast & Furious scandal, which resulted in the murder of a Border Patrol agent, has been withheld from Congress — with the attorney general held in contempt. The VA cooked its books to conceal the mistreatment of our veterans, some of whom died.

How does it help Republicans to assert, and how do they justify asserting, that none of this misconduct rises to the level of profound breaches of the public trust — high crimes and misdemeanors? Do they really believe the failure to recognize the seriousness of Obama-administration malfeasance makes them more attractive to voters?

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