Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee this week trotted out a trio of supposedly dispassionate legal experts to explain why the impeachment of President Trump was justified.
But however smart scholars such as Michael Gerhardt, distinguished professor of constitutional law at University of North Carolina, might be, they aren’t above peddling partisan absurdities. Once Gerhardt argued that Trump’s behavior was “worse than the misconduct of any prior president,” we no longer had any obligation to take him seriously on the topic.
History began before 2016, and there are at least a dozen instances of presidential misconduct that are both morally and constitutionally “worse” than Trump’s blundering attempt to launch a self-serving Ukrainian investigation into his rival’s shady son.
Let’s ignore for a moment that American presidents have owned their fellow human beings and focus instead on the fact that in 1942, the president of the United States signed an executive order to unilaterally intern some 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Not only was the policy racist, it amounted to a full-bore attack on about half the Constitution he had sworn to uphold.
Woodrow Wilson — who regularly said things like, “a negro’s place is in the corn field” — re-segregated the civil service, personally firing more than a dozen supervisors for the sin of being black. He also threw dissenters and political adversaries into prison, instructed the postmaster to refuse delivery of literature he deemed unpatriotic and created an unconstitutional civilian police force that targeted Americans for political dissent. All of what Wilson did was “worse.”
Despite their great achievements, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the latter without any congressional approval. Surely even Trump-haters will admit that denying citizens their fundamental due-process rights is a more serious offense than President Trump’s rhetoric and actions?
We can go on. Andrew Jackson ignored courts and laws and used his power to ethnically cleanse lands that he also sometimes happened to have a financial interest in. Teddy Roosevelt threatened US citizens with military intervention and abused his power in one way or another every day of his presidency. A reckless JFK probably shared a mistress with leading Chicago mobster Sam Giancana, setting himself up for blackmail or worse.
Richard Nixon may have lost his job after obstructing an investigation into freelance GOP spying on his political opponents, but Lyndon Johnson skipped any pretense and just asked the FBI and CIA to spy for him. CIA officials, illegally operating inside the United States, spied on the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964 and brought LBJ information he used to undermine his opponents at every turn. That’s “worse.”
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As for Bill Clinton, well, he couldn’t go a month without some shady, humiliating scandal.
Now, maybe Professor Gerhardt doesn’t view incidents that weren’t investigated, prosecuted or contemporaneously illegal as “misconduct.” That would be unfortunate. But even if so, referring to Trump’s actions as “worse than the misconduct of any prior president” would be terminally ahistorical.
Another Democratic expert, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan, actually drew applause for a canned line about the Constitution’s prohibition on titles of nobility: “While the president can name his son Barron,” she said, “he can’t make him a baron.”
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Karlan, it came out, was a Barack Obama donor.
Let’s talk about Obama. The president who ignored Congress and created laws by fiat. The man who ignored laws when they were inconvenient, then ignored courts that told him to stop doing it. The man who ignored congressional subpoenas after his administration put 2,000 weapons into the hands of narco-traffickers and an Islamic terrorist, leading to the murder of at least one American.
More than once, Obama spied on the press. He ordered law enforcement to back off a terrorist organization that was engaged in criminal behavior in the United States, so that he could make a deal with Iran and bolster his political agenda. More than any modern president, Obama was rebuked by the Supreme Court, often unanimously. To watch a supporter of the previous president playacting as a Madisonian purist was intolerable.
To argue, “Sure, he’s bad, but, hey, there were worse presidents than Donald Trump!” is a terrible defense. Indeed, it is no defense at all. But this isn’t a case in favor of Trump; it’s a plea for people to resist saying insane things because they dislike this president.
David Harsanyi is a senior writer at National Review, from which this column was adapted. Twitter: @DavidHarsanyi