As the congressional impeachment investigation of President Trump advances, I am haunted by a similar episode that briefly consumed the Maine House of Representatives in January 2016. It concerned the creation of a special committee to investigate acts by then-Gov. Paul LePage that might constitute impeachable offenses.

The offenses of the two chief executives are different, but both involve the failure to abide by constitutional duties and their oaths of office. Gov. LePage’s offenses included pressuring the quasi-judicial Human Rights Commission and Department of Labor workers compensation hearing officers to rule in favor of employers; the refusal to issue bonds for the purchase of conservation lands, notwithstanding the approval by voters of that bond; and his threatened withholding of funds to block the hiring by a private entity of one of his political adversaries.

These offenses did not concern Gov. LePage’s many personal peccadilloes, such as crudely insulting legislative leaders and the U.S. president, but rather were actions that demonstrated a disregard for the basic tenets of our democracy and the rule of law.

The consideration of the resolution was clouded by Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge what constitutes an impeachable offense under the Maine Constitution (“misdemeanors,” similar but not identical to the magic words in the U.S. Constitution: “Treason, Bribery or High Crimes and misdemeanors”). Both provisions were lifted from words used in impeachments throughout centuries of English and American practice, some occurring not long before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

Before becoming a Maine representative, I had worked as counsel for the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on the impeachment of a federal judge, and so I took to the floor to try to enlighten members as to the history and meaning of these terms.

I stressed that the words, notwithstanding their 21st-century connotations, did not equate to criminal offenses, but rather were tied to a gross failure of official duties. This was clear from the Constitutional Convention’s record, as well as precise explanations in the Federalist Papers. Nevertheless, the minority leader repeatedly rose, interrupting my presentation, to object that the listed acts were “not even crimes.” I felt as if I had been talking to a wall.

In both Maine in 2016 and Congress today, Democrats controlled the House, the body with sole power to impeach, but the chief executive was and is a Republican. If Maine representatives had voted as a bloc, Gov. LePage would have been impeached. The vote failed because enough of my Democratic colleagues believed that even if Gov. LePage had committed impeachable offenses, going through the process would squander our political capital since the Republican-controlled Maine Senate almost certainly would acquit the governor. The exercise would only exacerbate the political divide in the Legislature and the public, they reasoned. Maybe because Congress’ partisan divide is so rock solid, this argument is not being raised now.

Nevertheless, real political risks exist to taking on a presidential impeachment. But one can speculate endlessly about exactly how impeachment without a conviction will affect future political outcomes in a particular case. Then-President Bill Clinton’s improved post-impeachment approval ratings are perhaps a cautionary tale. But Clinton’s supporters had a stronger case that the offenses were not impeachable ones – tawdry, shameful behavior, but unrelated to his presidential obligations.

In the end, the public’s judgment will depend on their sense of how destructive the offense is to our country and our sense of what it stands for. Blackmailing another country to gain advantage in a president’s bid for re-election, particularly when that country stands guard over the aggression of Russia, our mortal enemy, may rise to that level. Only time will tell.

I also believe there is a new understanding about the duty of a co-equal branch of the government to rein in the chief executive when he or she has flouted the Constitution and the law, even if conviction is unlikely. The judgment of the people’s House that something terrible has happened and should not be swept under the rug is an important part of preserving our democracy.

Whether Donald Trump is impeached or not, whether or not he is convicted, whether or not he is driven from the White House by voters, the vote to initiate an impeachment proceeding is a stain that will always tarnish his place in history. This is the argument I tried and failed to make in 2016.


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