Profiles in Courage and Cowardice
Steve Hochstadt is a professor of history emeritus at Illinois College, who blogs for HNN and LAProgressive, and writes about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
The votes in the House and soon in the Senate about impeaching Trump are mostly seen as foregone conclusions. It was clear that he would be impeached on both articles in the House, and that two-thirds of Senators will not vote to convict. Hidden in these outcomes are many individual dramas for the few members of Congress who position themselves near the middle, who represent districts where elections are in doubt. Their votes represent more than partisan loyalty – they display courage or its absence.
Democrat Elissa Slotkin represents a House district in Michigan that had long been in Republican hands and was won by Trump in 2016 by 7 points. She beat the incumbent in 2018, winning just 50.6% of the vote. Like all the Democratic House members who won in districts that had gone for Trump, she worried about how her vote would affect her chances of re-election. She read our founding documents at the National Archives and spent a weekend at her family farm reading the hearing transcripts. As she appeared at a town hall meeting in her district last week, she was jeered by Trump supporters before she said a word. When she announced that she would vote for impeachment, she got a standing ovation and shouted insults.
She explained herself in an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press: “I have done what I was trained to do as a CIA officer who worked for both Republicans and Democrats: I took a step back, looked at the full body of available information, and tried to make an objective decision on my vote.” She also faced the consequences squarely: “I’ve been told more times that I can count that the vote I’ll be casting this week will mark the end of my short political career. That may be. . . . There are some decisions in life that have to be made based on what you know in your bones is right. And this is one of those times.”
Of the 31 House Democrats who won in districts that Trump carried in 2016, 29 voted to impeach him. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, from a district that Trump won by 31 points, voted against. And then there’s Jeff Van Drew, first-term House member from New Jersey, who won in a district that has flipped back and forth between parties, and was won by Trump by 5 points. His 2018 victory was aided by considerable financing from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In November, he said in a teleconference that he was against impeachment, but vowed to remain a Democrat, which he had been his whole life: “I am absolutely not changing.” Then he saw a poll of Democratic primary voters, in which 70% said they would be less likely to vote for him if he opposed impeachment. Meanwhile, he was meeting with White House Republicans, who promised him Trump’s support. So he voted against impeachment and became a Republican. The next day, Trump asked his supporters to donate to Van Drew’s campaign. Van Drew’s Congressional staff resigned en masse. He told Trump in a televised Oval Office meeting, “You have my undying support.”
Somewhere in the middle between political courage and its absence lies the case of Jared Golden of Maine, whose successful 2018 campaign to unseat a Republican incumbent I supported. His district went for Trump by 10 points in 2016, and Golden won only because the new Maine system of ranked-choice voting gave him enough second-place votes to overcome his rival’s lead. His re-election certainly qualifies as endangered.
Golden took a unique approach to impeachment, voting for the first article on abuse of power, but against the second on obstruction of Congress. He said that Trump’s obstruction of Congress “has not yet, in my view, reached the threshold of 'high crime or misdemeanor' that the Constitution demands.” Golden wrote a long statement explaining his actions, arguing that House Democrats had not yet tried hard enough to get the courts to force Trump’s aides to testify.
I cannot judge Golden’s motives. He said, “I voted my heart without fear about politics at all.” Perhaps his heart feared the end of his political career.
But it is worth considering how Trump has defied Congress since he was elected. When Congress refused to appropriate as much money as he wanted to build his Wall, Trump decided to spend it anyway by declaring a “national emergency”. According to the Constitution, only Congress has the authority to decide how to spend taxpayer funds. Federal courts then blocked Trump’s use of other funds. Trump’s lawyers argued that no entity has the authority to challenge in court Trump’s extension of his powers. In July, the Supreme Court sided with Trump and allowed spending for the Wall to proceed.
Trump’s defiance of Congressional oversight began long before the impeachment crisis. In February, the administration refused to send Congress a legally required report about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives. A Trump official said, “The President maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.” In April, he told a former personnel security official not to appear before the House Oversight Committee, which was investigating White House security clearance practices. That month, the Justice Department defied a bipartisan subpoena from the Oversight Committee investigating the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
Robert Mueller found many instances of Trump’s obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation. Mueller declined to conclude that Trump had committed a crime, only because of a Justice Department memo that claims temporary immunity of a sitting president from prosecution. He clearly pointed toward impeachment as a remedy, and the House impeachment committees considered putting those actions into an article of impeachment. They decided not to, in order to simplify the process.
There are many other examples. Jared Golden’s idea that the House should wait and pursue their requests through the courts ignores the unprecedented nature of Trump’s refusal to do anything that the Democratic House requests or demands. It makes no sense to treat each instance of obstruction as a separate judicial case, which makes it impossible for Congress to do its job. Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker wrote, “Trump will create a new constitutional norm—in which the executive can defy the legislature without consequence.”
When John Kennedy wrote (or just put his name on?) Profiles in Courage, he quoted a column from Walter Lippmann, who had despaired of any courage among elected politicians: “They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular.” Yet historian Jon Meacham and political science PhD candidate Michael E. Shepherd write that many Congresspeople who took unpopular votes survived.
The great majority of young House Democrats who face difficult re-election campaigns in Trump districts acted courageously. Elissa Slotkin explained what courage looks like: “Look, I want to get reelected. The greatest honor of my life is to represent this district. But if I’m not, at least I can look at myself in the mirror when I leave office.”
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