Editor’s Note: Charlie Firestone is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The evidence is mounting daily that President Donald Trump may have committed an impeachable offense in withholding aid to Ukraine as he sought an investigation that would aid his reelection campaign. But with our polarized political system and split party control of Congress – many think impeachment is inevitable in the House, but conviction unattainable in the Senate – we need an alternative to impeachment. And luckily we have one.
After amassing the testimony and preparing for the articles of impeachment, the House could change course and introduce a resolution for censure of the President. In it, they would recite all the behavior that would go into articles of impeachment. But instead of Trump’s removal from office as a remedy, it would essentially place the impeachment process in abeyance until the House can determine whether it will be able to hear from additional key witnesses.
This is a viable option for many reasons.
As the Democrats make their point that the President’s behavior is unacceptable, the Republicans and the President continue to say that this impeachment inquiry is just another desperate attempt by Democrats to get Trump out of the White House after Robert Mueller’s investigation.
So far, several key witnesses have refused to come forward to testify, and some, like John Bolton, have gone to federal court to determine if they must comply with congressional subpoenas over and above a White House order not to testify. A federal judge ruled this week that there is no blanket immunity for officials from a congressional subpoena, but the administration is appealing the ruling. This will take time that the House does not seem willing to wait for.
Even more concerning, though, is that after this process runs its course, it will be extremely difficult as a practical matter for the House to go through an impeachment process for anything the President does in the future, at least in the current term. It is unlikely the populace would stand for another round of divisive impeachment proceedings, as an ongoing matter, unless there is an extremely serious and obvious charge (such as direct evidence of taking bribes as was the case with Vice President Spiro Agnew in the early 1970s).
Complicating the process is that with questions being raised about Vice President Mike Pence’s possible involvement in the Ukraine scandal, the presidential line of succession becomes more of a focus. Next would be the speaker of the House, and our House speaker is a member of the opposing party. The GOP-controlled Senate may be even less inclined to move forward with removal from office in an impeachment when a “President Nancy Pelosi” is possible.
A censure would issue a formal warning: This is unacceptable behavior for a president, but we will not remove you from office this time. However, pending further testimony or should there be any instance of further wrongdoing, the appropriate remedy is removal from office. Ideally, the Senate would also adopt a resolution of censure, though support for Trump and the politics of the upcoming election would suggest that that is highly unlikely.
This is not a new notion. A censure was proposed in earlier stages of the process by AEI’s Norman Ornstein and Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, among others. It essentially places a marker of condemnation pending a further possibility of bringing an impeachment.
Additionally, and as part of the legislative negotiations, Congress could use this occasion to amend the Presidential Succession Act to change the line of succession. Recognizing the potential conflict of interest of an opposing party removing the president and vice president, Congress could change the line of succession after the vice president from the speaker of the House to the highest ranking member of the House from the same party as the president. That way, any semblance of partisan motivations or charges of a “coup” would be removed by allowing the elected party to stay in office throughout the presidential term.
By amending the line of succession, Republicans could rest assured that, going forward, should impeachment arise again, they would not lose the presidency.
The Democrats would be hard-pressed to pull back from full impeachment. Censure could be seen as a slap on the wrist, and a failure of their leadership to prove what they and their constituencies believe have been abuses of the presidency.
But that is what compromise is made of – common ground, and a spirit of working together in the future. A recent CNN poll showed that 50% of the country believes that President Trump should be impeached. This number hasn’t changed since a mid-October poll. With the public now apparently locked into their opinions on impeachment after two weeks of public testimony, this resolution could be a way out of a mess for both parties.
Ultimately, Congress would be on record condemning the clear wrongdoing by the President, warning of further misconduct which could make new proceedings acceptable. But it would not be issuing the “death penalty” of removal from office, yet. It also shows patience in possibly awaiting a court resolution of congressional authority to subpoena executive branch officers. And it allows future behavior to be the subject of reopening impeachment hearings.