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Democrats keep censure for Trump on the table

June 4, 2019
In The News

House Democrats are eyeing a move to censure President Trump as a possible alternative to impeaching a president they have accused of gross wrongdoing while in office.

A censure resolution — essentially a public reprimand — lacks the teeth of impeachment’s intrinsic threat to remove a sitting president. But supporters say it would send a clear and immediate message to voters that Democrats are taking seriously their constitutional responsibility to be a check on executive misconduct.

The censure consideration comes at a time when Democrats are moving forward with other congressional tools to go after Trump administration officials. The House is expected to vote next week to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for declining to comply with a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s full report and related evidence. 

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who’s calling for immediate censure of Trump, said it would send a warning to future administrations that Congress won’t sit idle in the face of presidential malfeasance.

And unlike impeachment, which requires overwhelming Senate support, the Democratic-controlled House could censure Trump without a single Republican on board.

“The advantage of that is it can be done with the House,” he said. “We can hold the president accountable and say that his actions are unethical and he’s engaged in blatant misconduct and that there can be some accountability for future presidents.”

“It’s a permanent mark on the president’s record,” Khanna added.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have been out in front on censure. They proposed the punitive measure after Trump defended the white nationalists who staged deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, and the following year then-CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) introduced a censure resolution in the GOP-controlled House condemning Trump after the president referred to some developing nations, including those in Africa, as “shithole countries.”

More recently, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) floated censure in March, after the release of Mueller’s report on Russia’s election meddling.

The idea hasn’t caught on with Democratic leaders, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — who is under increasing pressure to show results as House Democrats pursue a series of aggressive investigations into potential presidential misconduct — said she is not ruling anything out as those probes evolve.

“Where they will lead us, we shall see,” Pelosi said last week. “Nothing is off the table.”

A censure resolution could provide an outlet for those Democrats who are growing increasingly impatient with the pace of the investigations, which have been hampered by the administration’s stonewalling. The standoffs with the White House have largely moved to the courts, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said last week that he doesn’t expect those cases to be fully resolved until September or October.

The contempt vote for Barr could also relieve some pressure — for the time being — among Democrats demanding strong action.

Yet there are risks involved with censure, according to a number of former Democratic lawmakers watching the saga unfold.

“The advantage is it perhaps becomes a strategic substitute to an impeachment process that could backfire electorally,” said former-Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.). “The disadvantage is that it could negatively impair the investigations that House Democrats are conducting.”

“If you pass a censure resolution, I suppose an argument could be made that you no longer need these investigations because you’ve already censured the guy,” he added.

Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) warned that it’s too early to know if Trump’s actions merit censure or impeachment. He said he supports Pelosi’s go-slow approach to collect more evidence of presidential wrongdoing before taking either step.

“The most important thing to do is proceed in a way that resolves the appropriate role of the legislative branch versus the executive branch,” Pomeroy said, referring to the courts. “Getting that resolved will then set the stage to being able to develop a record that may or may not support a censure.”

“Doing it prematurely looks more like: ‘We really, really don’t like you.’ And a statement like that is really of no consequence,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to build a record first.”

Censuring a president is exceedingly rare: only Andrew Jackson has been the subject of such a formal reprimand, which passed the Senate in 1834 after Jackson refused to release documents related to his efforts to deny funds to the Second Bank of the United States.

In 1860, the House passed a resolution charging President Buchanan for awarding military contracts for political ends. But while the resolution censured the Navy secretary, it offered only a “reproof” of the president. “Thus, it could be argued that the House chose a weaker reprimand for the President,” the Congressional Research Service wrote last year in a report on censure.

Presidents Lincoln, Tyler, Polk, Nixon and Clinton have also been the target of censure proposals, but those measures were never adopted.

Pelosi is no stranger to the censure process. During Clinton’s impeachment in 1998, Democrats sought instead to censure their ally in the White House — a move Republicans argued was unconstitutional. Both Pelosi and then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), now the Senate Minority Leader, believed otherwise, and took to the floor to make their case.

“The power of Congress to censure is an obvious corollary of the legislatures inherent power as a deliberative body to speak its mind,” Pelosi said at the time.

Former-Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who headed the Democrats’ campaign arm through much of the 1980s, said there are clear differences between the Clinton episode, most obviously that Pelosi is facing a Republican in the White House. Still, he said there are lessons she’s taking from those events.

“Don’t forget, she was a Democrat supporting a Democratic president. She thought that he had done something wrong, and she said she felt that he deserved censure,” Coelho said. “What she learned was that impeachment basically helped Clinton, and that censure probably wouldn’t have made any difference in any case. And I think she’s right about that.”

Censure supporters like Khanna acknowledge that they risk attacks from the left; impeachment advocates on and off Capitol Hill will surely deem a nonbinding censure resolution to be too soft.

Khanna emphasized that censuring Trump would not prevent Democrats from revisiting impeachment later. 

“It doesn’t preclude anything. It just gets something done,” he said. 

And he’s quick to point out that any impeachment effort in the House is almost certain to die in a Senate controlled by Trump’s Republican allies.

“What’s the teeth to an impeachment where the Senate acquits? I mean, there’s no teeth to that either, other than showing that you object to the president’s behavior,” Khanna said.  “[Censure] is a cleaner way of doing that.”