As we mourn the death of Heather Heyer, murdered by a white supremacist at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday, and hope for the recovery of the dozens of other anti-racist counterdemonstrators injured that day, Donald Trump continues to fan the flames of hatred and bigotry he has nourished throughout his brief presidency.
The president’s reprehensible behavior in this moment creates a new sense of urgency. We cannot postpone consideration of impeachment until Special Counsel Robert Mueller finishes his criminal investigation. It is time to pressure the House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump for his abuse of power. We must stop this president before he launches a new civil war and/or nuclear war.
Commentator Robert Tracinski, writing on the conservative website The Federalist, concurs. “We’re done with the ‘Well, maybe it won’t be so bad and we should take what we can get’ phase of this administration,” he wrote, apparently referring to Republicans who are holding their noses while hoping for tax cuts and more right-wing Supreme Court justices.
“It’s time for the ‘He’s a disaster and needs to go’ phase,” Tracinski continued. “For everybody’s good, Donald Trump needs to not be president, and he needs to not be president yesterday.”
Tracinski noted, “In a country where 99 percent of the population is opposed to Nazis, it should be the easiest thing in the world for an American president to unite the country by appealing to our shared values.”
But that is not what Trump did after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville resulted in the death of Heyer and wounding of 34 people. The rally drew together neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and self-described members of the “alt-right” — a racist, radical right-wing movement that seeks to rebrand white supremacy, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-feminist politics, homophobia and transphobia under a more polished, middle-class veneer.
In a classic example of false moral equivalency, Trump ultimately responded on Tuesday to the racist, anti-Semitic attacks by saying there were “very fine people on both sides” and “many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
Outrage at Trump’s Remarks
A Washington Post editorial stated, “Tuesday was a great day for David Duke and racists everywhere. The president of the United States all but declared that he has their backs.” It continued, “We’ve all seen the videotape: One side was composed of Nazis, Klansmen and other avowed racists chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us.’ The other side was objecting to their racism.”
As Tracinski pointed out, “this was a Nazi march from the beginning, planned by Nazis, for Nazis.” The day before the deadly rally, the neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched through Charlottesville with Ku Klux Klan-like tiki torches, also chanting the Nazi slogan, “Blood and Soil.”
Five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and National Guard, condemned the neo-Nazis, stating that their beliefs contradicted the military’s core values.
A dozen CEOs of powerful corporations, outraged at Trump’s remarks, agreed to disband the Strategic and Policy Forum, an elite group chosen to advise the president on economic issues.
After Trump’s comments conflating the neo-Nazis and white supremacists with anti-racist protestors, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.”
Ryan is no anti-racist hero; if his policy proposals were enacted, they would devastate communities of color. But Trump went too far, even for Ryan.
So, will Ryan exercise moral leadership and shepherd the House through impeachment of the president?
Abuse of Power
The proceedings would begin in the House Judiciary Committee, which can recommend impeachment. The full House would then decide whether to issue articles of impeachment, which requires a majority. If the House votes to impeach, the case would go to the Senate for trial, where a two-thirds majority is necessary for a finding of guilt and removal from office.
The Constitution provides for impeachment of the president when he commits “high crimes and misdemeanors.” They include, but are not limited to, conduct punishable by the criminal law. One of the articles of impeachment filed against Richard Nixon was “abuse of power.”
Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 65 that offenses are impeachable if they “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
“They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself,” Hamilton added.
No individual embodies the trust of the public more than the president, who is elected by the people. When the people choose their president, they are entrusting that person with their security, well-being and survival. The voters should be able to trust the president to act in their best interests and protect them from harm.
The neo-Nazis and white supremacists are on a roll, with rallies planned across the country. By emboldening them and encouraging widespread polarization, Trump is abusing his power and placing the country at risk of a new civil war.
Five months before Charlottesville, Keith Mines, a State Department expert on internecine conflict, predicted, “the United States faces a 60 percent chance there will be a civil war over the next 10 to 15 years.” The consensus among several national security thinkers interviewed by Foreign Policy about the likelihood of a new civil war is closer to a 35 percent chance — lower than Mines’ estimate but still quite significant.
Since 2002, militant right-wingers have killed more people in the United States than Islamic extremists have, according to Newsweek.
Trump has also illegally threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation. The United Nations Charter prohibits the threat or use of military force against another country except in self-defense or with the Security Council’s blessing. After the Department of National Intelligence restated a four-year-old unconfirmed claim that North Korea had miniaturized nuclear warheads for its missiles, Trump stated, “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Four days later, Trump warned North Korea that the US military is “locked and loaded.” If Trump attacked North Korea, he would not be acting in self-defense or with approval of the Security Council.
By supporting neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and threatening to start a nuclear war, Trump is violating the trust and abusing the power “We the People” have placed in him.
Obstruction of Justice
Another article of impeachment leveled against Nixon was “obstruction of justice.” Even before Charlottesville, there was sufficient evidence of Trump’s obstruction of justice and law-breaking to support impeachment.
Trump prevailed upon then-FBI Director James Comey to halt his investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s wrongdoing. When Comey refused, Trump fired him. In addition, Donald Trump Jr. violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by meeting with Russians to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. When it became public, Trump wrote a statement trying to cover it up.
Trump has also violated the Constitution’s Take Care Clause, which says the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” He pledged to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (the law of the land), encouraged police brutality (advocating violation of the Fourth Amendment), promulgated an unconstitutional Muslim Ban, illegally bombed Syria and killed numerous civilians, and violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
Do Republicans Have the Will to Impeach Trump?
An August 2-8 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 40 percent of Americans — including almost three-quarters of Democrats and 7 percent of Republicans — favored Trump’s impeachment. That poll took place before the deadly Charlottesville rally.
Several GOP Congress members issued strong statements against the terrorist attack by white supremacists. Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) wrote, “We should call evil by its name. My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged at home.” Only a few Republicans defended Trump.
But do Republicans have the will to impeach Trump? Maybe not. Of those who took issue with his statements, almost none called out the president directly. Sen Cory Gardner (Colorado), one of the few who did, tweeted, “Mr. President — we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”
After Trump’s statement about “very fine people on both sides,” David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, rewarded Trump with the tweet, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
Duke was drawing a false equivalency. Antifa, short for “anti-fascist,” is a loose affiliation of radical leftists who chronicle and demonstrate against militant right-wingers throughout the country. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was also represented in Charlottesville. It should go without saying that members of these groups, who acted in self-defense against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, are not terrorists.
In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has documented over 900 active hate groups in the United States, stated, “The radical right was more successful in entering the political mainstream last year than in half a century.”
Moreover, a new CBS poll found 67 percent of GOP voters approve of Trump’s statements about Charlottesville.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has called for hearings into the Charlottesville attack and the rise of white supremacists in the United States. But no Republican has publicly discussed impeachment, and the GOP has a majority on the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, announced he plans to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump. He stated that Trump had “failed the presidential test of moral leadership,” adding, “There are no good Nazis. There are no good Klansmen.” Cohen said, “None of the marchers spewing such verbiage could be considered ‘very fine people’ as the President suggested…. No moral president would ever shy away from outright condemning hate, intolerance and bigotry.”
The Democrats have mounted a full-court press against Republicans to denounce Trump on this issue. “No tool has been overlooked,” Mike Lillis and Scott Wong reported in The Hill. “The Democrats have sent letters, called for hearings, launched campaign ads and promised resolutions of censure and impeachment.”
The GOP is at a critical juncture. It must decide whether it wants to become the official party of the white supremacists.
We must pressure the members of the House Judiciary Committee in every way we can to initiate impeachment proceedings.
Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. The updated edition of her book, Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues, will be published soon. Visit her website: http://marjoriecohn.com/ and follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/marjoriecohn.