Like most of you, I spend a lot of time reading about the FBI’s investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to the Russian government. I spend a lot of time worrying about the president’s daily efforts to discredit law enforcement, disparage Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and generally grind America’s civil religion to dust.
And like most of you, I’m confident, though not convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Trump did abuse his authority and power to obstruct justice.
He did it when he fired former FBI Director James Comey over “the Russia story.” He did it when he asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to cover for him. He did it on four occasions when he urged US Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his decision to recuse himself from the FBI’s ongoing investigation.
Why the focus on obstruction? Because presidents have vast powers. They really are above the law, because they are in charge of its execution. But power must have limits if democracy means anything. That was the gist of the investigation of Richard Nixon. Abuse of power did not rise to the level of impeachment during the Watergate hearings. Of the four articles of impeachment by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, abuse of power is second. Obstruction of justice, however, is No. 1.
In conspiring with accomplices who broke into the Watergate Hotel in order to spy on Democratic Party operatives, Nixon, according to the articles, did the following:
- made false or misleading statements;
- withheld relevant and material evidence;
- instructed witnesses to lie;
- interfered with an ongoing investigation;
- approved hush money;
- promised to reward witnesses with pardons.
The first article concluded this way:
In all of this, Richard M. Nixon has acted in a manner contrary to his trust as President and subversive of constitutional government, to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.
Wherefore Richard M. Nixon, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office.
Let me emphasize that in violating the principle that America is a country of laws, and not men, Nixon caused an injury for which he had to be removed. His alleged crimes were a “manifest injury of the people of the United States.”
If obstructing justice is an injury worthy of removing a democratically elected president, what about literal injury, even death? For instance, the 4,645 dead Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico? The official death toll was 64. Since the fall of 2017, the president has nary said a word about it.
Trump is not off the hook. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, about a third of the deaths were due to “delayed or prevented access to medical care.” Researchers blamed the inability to obtain medications, closed medical facilities, and a lack of electricity for necessary medical equipment.
In other words, the government’s disaster recovery, or lack thereof, is responsible for more death than either Hurricane Katrina or the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“In our survey, interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane, a finding consistent with the widely reported disruption of health systems.”
Americans disagree about the point of government and its role in protecting freedom. Some people prefer “negative liberty.” The government should get out of the way and let individuals go about their business freely. Others prefer “positive liberty.” The government should play a part of individual lives to maximize freedom.
But everyone agrees that when the emergency is too great for any state or territory to face alone, it is the responsibility of the federal government to act. It is not only a moral imperative to save lives. It is a political imperative, as the government is constitutionally bound to defending the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
To be sure, presidential decision-making can lead to death. This is part of being a commander-in-chief after all. But injury and death as the result of presidential decision-making is acceptable as long as such decisions are made in the national interest. No one can argue that 4,645 Puerto Ricans are a case in point.
It seems to me that our current president failed to live up to the trust all Americans placed in him the day he took office, whether they voted for him or not. All Americans have a stake in a president honoring his oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” But 4,645 Americans paid the price when he didn’t.
Impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. I presume the president, and a lot of Americans, doesn’t know or care to know or believe when told that Puerto Ricans are citizens. Given that reality, I’d say impeaching and removing a democratically elected president on account of 4,600 dead Americans is a tough argument.
It shouldn’t be.
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