Want to Hold Trump and His Republican Enablers Accountable? Go for the Oath
A novel strategy for forcing our obviously unfit President from office
Now that Donald Trump has crossed the normalizing thresholds of his first anniversary and his first State of the Union, millions of horrified Americans are coming to an even more horrifying conclusion: there is no realistic, reliable way to remove this clear and present danger from the White House. . . and we will be stuck with a president who is fundamentally unfit for office for at least three more years.
The New York Times neatly summed up this conventional wisdom in a recent, widely-quoted editorial (“Is Mr. Trump Nuts?”), methodically raising and dismissing the obvious options for canceling the worst reality show in history. Impeachment is a non-starter for the foreseeable future, with subservient Republicans in charge of the House. The 25th Amendment incapacity strategy is even more fanciful — experts doubt the provision is even applicable to Trump’s peculiar mental defects, and even it if were, the idea that half of Trump’s fawning cabinet would declare him incompetent is a pipe dream. All that’s left, the Times contends, is the ballot box: to vote in members of Congress “who will fight Mr. Trump’s most dangerous behaviors.”
Maybe it’s just Gary Oldman’s channeling of Churchill ringing in my ears, but I would submit it’s far too soon to surrender to Trump-ism in our own darkest hour. Not with the existential stakes for our democracy and world security. And especially when we still have at least one unexplored constitutional card left to play, a mechanism of accountability that’s hiding in plain sight: the oath of office. Not the one Trump took, but the sworn promise to “support and defend” the Constitution made by every coward in Congress who has been enabling and protecting a president who ritually skirts and subverts the law.
This is counter-intuitive, I know. But, if our ultimate goal is to dump Trump, then we actually have to ignore him and start targeting the very people — the only people — who have not just the legal but the political power to force Trump to leave office.
Let me explain why. . . and then how.
The Case for Targeting the Oath
Over the past year, most Republicans have chosen to renege on their oath and reject their obligation to put country over party, in large part because they have self-interestedly calculated that they have more to fear from a primary challenge than acting on principle. This calculus is starting to take its toll — a growing number of House and Senate members from swing areas are retiring this year rather than face almost certain defeat because of their craven fealty to their toxic president. But that actually means these retirees have even less incentive to dump Trump. And besides, they represent a small minority of the president’s enablers — most are sticking to their personal partisan calculus, even if it costs them the majority they so covet.
I would bet all of the billions controlled by Trump’s cabinet that not one of these Members has thought for one moment about the possibility of being called out for violating their oath. That’s understandable, given that the prospect of punishment for doing so is as unprecedented as Trump’s norm-shattering presidency itself. The fact is, even though the pledge to support and defend the Constitution is specified in the Constitution itself and codified in statute, there is actually nothing in the law or even the House or Senate rules that outlines any specific consequences for breaching it — other than the extreme crimes of treason.
But on the other hand, nor does the law or congressional rules insulate oath-breaking Members from scrutiny and accountability. In the Senate, for example, the Ethics Committee has jurisdiction to consider “complaints and investigate allegations of improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate, violations of law, violations of the Senate Code of Official Conduct and violations of rules and regulations of the Senate, relating to the conduct of individuals in the performance of their duties as Members of the Senate, or as officers or employees of the Senate, and to make appropriate findings of fact and conclusions with respect thereto.” The possible punishments: censure or even expulsion.
In this ambiguity, I see opportunity. Imagine what would happen if thousands of constituents in dozens of competitive districts and swing states signed petitions that functioned as a formal indictment of their respective oath-breaking Members — with specific charges and supporting evidence — and demanded a formal investigation by the relevant Ethics Committee.
The Republicans controlling the ethics machinery would almost certainly find a way to squelch these complaints. But much like the #MeToo movement and the secretive, predator-protecting process for dealing with sexual harassment complaints that women activists challenged, the critical mass of indictments would at least expose the failings of this constitutionally-enshrined instrument of duty. It would also arm Hill Democrats with a substantive point to rally around. If nothing else, it would jump-start a long-overdue discussion in Washington about the Republicans’ ethical obligations — and center our attention on their dishonor.
The Plan: Make the Republicans HonorUS
The real potential of this approach, though, lies in the states and with the voters — by providing the most immediate and effective vehicle for channeling all of that pent up anti-Trump fire and fury that currently has no way to express itself in the political system until the next election.
Here’s the way I see it working. Once the petitions are filed and summarily suppressed, voters all over the country should hold their own public mock trials. Make it a serious exercise instead of a kangaroo court. Bring in accomplished lawyers, expert witnesses, and retired judges. And for added legitimacy, consider tapping the progressive American Constitution Society to oversee things. Now, no Republican target would dare show up, so to be fair, the conveners should invite a credible surrogate to defend the accused Member. And to be disciplined, the trials should stay focused on the oath question — which is a clean, easy case to make — and avoid getting hung up on debatable policy issues.
How to tie all the local activity together? Call it the #HonorUS Campaign. As in, it’s time for the Congressional Republicans to honor their oaths, honor their country and the ideals its founded on, and most importantly, honor the obligations they have to people they have committed to serve. To lead is to choose: are you with Trump, or are you with honor? If you break your vow and defend the unfit president instead of the Constitution, prepare to stand trial in the Honor Court. The natural rallying cry: #GofortheOath.
The obvious starting point would be states and districts with the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for reelection this November — such as Nevada Senator Dean Heller. House Speaker and Enabler-in-Chief Paul Ryan — who is facing a surprisingly serious challenge in his suburban Wisconsin district from iron worker Randy Bryce — would be another clear top target. But I am confident the #HonorUs campaign would spread quickly and widely to more reddish places like Texas, where hundreds of thousands of logic-driven longhorns would love to expose “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz.
From a tactical perspective, grassroots groups like Indivisible would have a literal field day with this concept. Indeed, if done right, it could provide a rocket-booster to Democratic mobilization efforts and threaten to turn the likely wave election already being forecasted into a full tsunami that would wipe out historically high numbers among that basket of dishonorables.
The Payoff: A Chorus Call for Resignation
Who knows where else #HonorUS would go once its unleashed? It could create a movement for recall elections or reforms to the ethics committee process. Maybe it even could lead to a new law that compels Members of Congress and Cabinet leaders to take some formal action if they conclude the President is incompetent or a clear and present danger to the country — and carries stiff penalties for failing to do so. If we already hold teachers, doctors, and clergy to this kind of legal standard, shouldn’t we do the same when it comes to the public servants we count on to be the check on the most powerful person in the world?
But for now, I believe the cumulative effect of #HonorUS would be to create an irresistible tide of political pressure that not only seriously threatens Republicans’ short-term hold on office but their permanent reputations. Who would want to go down in history as the first sitting Member of Congress to be censured by their own constituents for violating their oath to support and defend the Constitution? In turn, this pressure would pave the way to the ultimate goal — a critical mass of suddenly re-honored Republican leaders calling on the president to resign, much like the famous meeting Barry Goldwater and friends held with Nixon that pushed the disgraced president over the edge and out the White House door.
That, in sum, is the endgame. With an approval rating mostly hovering in the mid-30s and a methodical special counsel breathing down his neck, Trump can only survive in office with the protection of Republicans in Congress. If enough of them openly turn on him, his presidency will be unsustainable — especially if #HonorUS is in full swing when Mr. Mueller releases the expectedly damning findings of his investigation. The only question would be how Trump stage manages his own exit and what absurd, self-serving conspiracy theory he would use as an excuse.
Now, this strategy is far from a sure thing and a far cry from the clarity and credibility of the impeachment process. But it’s no more improbable than electing the first African-American president seemed a decade ago — or choosing a racist, meglomaniacal charlatan to succeed him. Moreover, I am convinced it’s the best shot we’ve got to solve an intolerable situation that the Framers did not anticipate and the Constitution does not account for: what happens when a ruling party collectively loses its moral bearings and refuses to take action against a demonstrably unfit president? The only recourse left, I submit, is the ultimate investor of constitutional authority — we the people. So let’s dispense with the defeatism and start honoring ourselves.
Gerstein is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters and an independent political analyst. He previously served as communications director and senior advisor to Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT). @dangerstein