Almost 10 years ago Bill Moyers Journal hosted a freewheeling discussion about impeachment with conservative scholar (and Clinton impeachment article author) Bruce Fein and John Nichols of The Nation. The impetus was a newly released poll that showed some 45 percent of Americans favored starting the impeachment process for President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Among the “high crimes and misdemeanors” the pair were accused of perpetrating were many related to civil liberties and obstruction of justice in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Of course, impeachment never proceeded against Bush and Cheney. Fein and Nichols were clear about the proper use of impeachment — not as a bludgeon or an axe striking off the head of state — but as a cure for what ails a very troubled executive.
We asked John Nichols for his perspective on this video, given our current political situation. This is what he had to say:
Those of us who have for many years worried about the imperial presidency regularly warn that an absence of checks and balances will, invariably, lead to the expansion of presidential powers.
Impeachment is an essential check and balance — arguably the most essential, and powerful, if the process is completed with the resignation or formal removal of an errant official. When members of the legislative branch fail to initiate the impeachment process for reasons of political calculation of circumstantial caution, they contribute to the expansion of executive branch authority. Partisans can almost always come up with excuses for avoiding the impeachment process. But when they do, they set the stage for future abuses. In effect, they encourage the imperial presidency to become more imperial.
The failure to impeach former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney for the high crimes and misdemeanors that characterized their tenure sent a signal that lawlessness would not be checked and balanced — even by a Congress in which the legislative branch was, in the last years of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, controlled by the opposition party. This was a terrible error on the part of congressional Democrats and responsible Republicans, and it has come back to haunt the United States.
Donald Trump’s abuses of power, and the abuses committed by those surrounding him, take advantage of the openings that were created when Bush and Cheney were not held to account. In fairness to Bush and Cheney, they took advantage of openings that were created by previous administrations, and by the failures of previous congresses to demand accountability (especially in the case of the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s). In further fairness to Bush and Cheney, and to the congresses that failed to check and balance those administrations at the moment when interventions were necessary, Trump is a distinct figure who displays a greater penchant for dismissing norms and disobeying rules than past presidents. But the core point remains: when irresponsible and lawless executives are not challenged by the legislative branch, the openings for abuse grow larger.
The failure to hold George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to account for their abuses has, as we warned a decade ago, created an opening for new and in many cases greater abuses. A failure to hold Donald Trump and his lieutenants to account will, necessarily, create openings for even greater abuses by ensuing presidents. That is why the moment in which we find ourselves is far more urgent than the partisans of both parties, and the soothing commentariat that always makes excuses for the avoidance of accountability, may choose to admit. But citizens should be concerned and engaged. The founding generation created the impeachment power to guard against the development of a regal presidency. The presidency we have now is dangerously regal; more authoritarian than responsive, more monarchical than democratic. This is the realization of the worst fears of Thomas Paine and the wiser of those who gathered in 1787. As such, we have a duty to do more than merely hold Donald Trump to account. Our duty now is to restore a proper balance to the governing of a nation that was never supposed to have an imperial president — or the threats that extend from the royal scam.