There are certain uncomfortable truths that come with any serious analysis of the office of the President of the United States. Presidents are, after all, killers. Whether we look to events like the illegal invasion of Iraq that resulted in the death of at least 174,574 civilian deaths or else point to Truman’s decision to drop an Atom bomb on Hiroshima, wherever we look we see authorized murder.
Often on a massive scale.
Of course, there are justifications for such actions. With no sure-fire way to abolish war, the occasional conflict is inevitable. They aren’t even really all that occasional. Today there are only ten countries in the world who are not at war with anyone at all. International law, despite having become increasingly intricate over the years, is not yet robust enough to bring people to justice regardless of where they chose to hide.
Presidents — even the most conscientious ones — have little choice when it comes to rubber stamping acts of violence.
To The Victors
Was the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 illegal?
Over a period of 48 hours, 16 square miles of the city was burned to the ground and as many as 130,000 men women and children — mostly women and children in fact — died a horrendous death. The man in charge of the operation — General Curtis LeMay — saw the attack for what it was. A necessary evil.
His aide, future Kennedy-Johnson era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was not so sure.
Relating the story to Director Errol Morris during the shooting of the film Fog of War McNamara reflected on LeMay’s reasoning. Having questioned the morality of what had happened, LeMay responded with atypical eloquence:
“McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing 100,000, burning to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number or none? And then had our soldiers cross the beaches in Tokyo and been slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you’re proposing?”
“Is that moral? Is that wise?”
Who among us that was not involved in such a war can truly say? LeMay understood the need to strike without mercy. But he never fooled himself into believing that his actions were justifiable in any wider sense:
Nor was his interpretation of the events lost on McNamara who agreed that:
“He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?
The stark reality is that if you could make a case for prosecuting Truman for burning Tokyo then you could probably say the same of pretty much any president in modern history. Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia, Reagan’s arming of the Contra. Even beloved liberal icons such as former President Barack Obama has a lot to answer for when it comes to his use of drone strikes.
As Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials noted, the villain of the piece always bears the same name.
War. For Ferencz– who in a life spanning some 95 years has seen more than his fair share of humanity’s dark side — war can make a monster out of anyone:
“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”
And all decent presidents too, I guess.
Such philosophical musings are restricted to the province of foreign policy of course. What the Commander-in-Chief can get away with in far away lands is very different from what is permissible at home. Not that presidents get a free pass when it comes to such foreign adventurism. It’s just that the decisions of the commander-in-chief on the world stage are often inoculated by context.
And then wrapped in the logic of Realpolitik.
Domestic policy is something else entirely.
The Constitution is the product of 17th-century philosophy married to 18th-century paranoia. Power — Lord Acton told us — corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With one eye on the watery freedoms of the English and another on the absolute power of the French monarchs, the Founding Fathers set about creating a system of checks and balances designed with two principal tasks in mind.
First, to inhibit the re-emergence of any form of tyrannical government.
Second, to provide the means to remove a tyrannical figure from office without having to resort to the regrettable violence of 1776.
For over 200 years, the system worked. More or less.
And then it broke.
Grand Old Party Poopers
Liberals are supposed to oppose conservatives, that’s just the way it is. We’re supposed to be sad when Republicans take the White House and happy when a Democrat sits in the oval office. Psychologically, we are far more forgiving of ‘our side’ than we are of the ‘others.’ Republican Snafu lingers in our collective consciousness far longer than do the mistakes of ideological allies.
That’s OK, that’s just human nature.
What’s not OK is the idea that we should blindly follow our chosen leader based purely on abstract notions of tribal loyalty. When presidents fail to live up the promises that led to their inauguration — or worse, manage to actively disappoint through their conduct in office — then the tide of opinion tends to shift.
Take Nixon for example. According to Gallop:
“The relentless uncovering of damaging information about the Watergate scandal through the spring and summer of 1973 led to a steady deterioration in public approval of Nixon month by month. By May, Nixon’s rating had dropped to 44%, and by August, it was at 31% — representing a 36% drop in about six months. (A year later, in August 1974 when he resigned from office, Nixon’s rating was 24%)”
Such swings tell a tale of bipartisan disgust with his behavior. An approval rating of 24% speaks of great dissatisfaction from both Democrats and Republicans. Such sentiment spread from grassroots to Congress itself. Friends abandoned Nixon, Republican Senators denounced him. Had Nixon not resigned, he’d have been forced out.
But that was 43 years ago. And the GOP was a very different beast back then.
People talk about impeachment as if it’s some kind of abstract concept, something that occurs so rarely as to barely be worth mentioning. It’s true that there have only been two impeachments in U.S. history and on both occasions the President has been acquitted by the Senate. However, since Nixon simply dodged a bullet by resigning we are left with the fact that over the course of 43 years there have been two attempts to remove a President from office via impeachment.
One of which — thanks to Nixon’s resignation — was successful.
All of which leaves us with a startling realization. One out of every four presidents over the last four decades has faced impeachment.
We’re actually about overdue.
Nixon’s fall had little to do with the actual break-in of the Watergate hotel and everything to do with the attempted cover-up that followed. Obstruction of Justice is a serious offense after all. In a similar vein, Bill Clinton’s inability to keep ‘Little Bill’ tucked safely away whilst he was supposed to be running the country wasn’t really the problem either.
It was his lying under oath to a Judge that truly rattled Congress.
What about President Trump?
As Liberal America noted last November, there are three possible routes to impeachment that Congress could pursue if only they had the motivation to do so. Of course, November was a long time ago as far as the world of politics is concerned. Back then, the main issues were fears of possible collusion with Russia, a focus on the emoluments clause combined with outrage over the many conflicts of interest surrounding Trump’s business empire. They were all ‘maybes’ or involved technical and untested rules of conduct that might not stand up in court.
Trump is innocent until proven guilty and in the absence of an independent inquiry into his ties to Russia, he is likely to continue to enjoy a presumption of innocence.
And yet, none of that really matters anymore.
Because Trump is now openly flouting the law. It doesn’t really matter whether he’s in bed with Putin or not. It doesn’t matter whether or not he’s raking in foreign gifts. The rules of impeachment don’t call for a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors; you only need to break one law to get hauled before the Senate.
We could easily leave the rest to the historians.
Trump is currently openly violating two laws.
To begin with he’s ignoring the Presidential Records Act in so far as he keeps deleting records that the law requires him to archive. The records in question here stem from two main sources; Tweets that he has hastily withdrawn due to typos and his suggestion that he secretly recorded conversations with James Comey.
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
Deleting records is unlikely to topple a sitting president. To be sure, it’s a middle finger flipped at the American people that Trump does not think that the rules apply to him but it’s not the worst crime a president has ever committed.
But it does segue nicely into that fact that in just one tweet Trump managed to break another, far more serious law.
The intimidation of a witness.
“Whoever knowingly uses intimidation, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person, or attempts to do so, or engages in misleading conduct toward another person, with intent to—influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of any person in an official proceeding; cause or induce any person to—withhold testimony, or withhold a record, document, or another object, from an official proceeding… shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
The rules for harassing an individual are much of the same.
The president by any measure is a powerful man. Taking to twitter to issue such warnings — veiled or otherwise — could hardly be seen as anything but intimidating. The sheer reach of a president’s words could be construed as harassment in and of themselves.
If only the GOP gave a shit.
But They Don’t
There was a time when winning wasn’t everything. A time when principles trumped aggregate gains. A time when an ideological putsch was less important than the desire to do the right thing.
Now, they couldn’t care less if he breaks the law, not really. So long as they can push through this bill and that bill. So long as they know he will sign off on any piece of legislation that attacks Obama’s legacy.
Trump could be impeached tomorrow.
All that is lacking is the political will to do so. Democrats would leap at the chance. At this point, many Republicans would too. Sure, Vice President Mike Pence is almost as crazy as Trump is but at least he’s regular GOP crazy. With Trump seemingly hell-bent on undermining the very foundations of American democracy Congress must play the cards they’ve been dealt.
And send a message to future would-be tin pot dictators with delusions of their own messianic brilliance.
No thanks. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.
Not in America.
Watch Sean Spicer get grilled over Trump’s Comey tapes:
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