- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2019

Minutes after the House’s historic vote impeaching the president of the United States, a grizzled newspaperman at the Capitol turned to his colleagues and said, “I never thought I’d be here for two of these in my lifetime.”

The experience, however, threatens to become all too common.

The vote that impeached President Trump set a new precedent, legal scholars warn, making the legislative branch’s most potent weapon a go-to option for Washington’s increasingly brutal partisan battlefield.

House Democrats introduced articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump six times before finally succeeding with the seventh attempt to put a stain on his presidency. Some of the earlier impeachment charges against Mr. Trump included his daring to change President Barack Obama’s military policy for transgender service members and Mr. Trump’s disrespectful treatment of the news media.

Last week’s votes impeaching Mr. Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, though, were unprecedented in that they were not based on a crime. The prior two impeachments, President Johnson in 1868 and President Clinton in 1998, both included criminal charges, violating a federal statute and perjury, respectively.

Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law, said he worried about the precedent set by the Trump impeachment.

“This vote could turn any political act the opposite political party disagrees with into an ‘abuse of power,’” he told The Washington Times.

In the same week House Democrats impeached Mr. Trump, the progressive group Common Cause called on them to do the same against Attorney General William Barr, arguing he has abused his power by putting the interests of the president over the nation.

Liberal organizations also set their sights on Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in the past several months, calling for him to be impeached over past, unsubstantiated allegations of sexual misconduct while in high school and college.

“It will become more common, become sort of dumbed-down, if you will,” said Harold Krent, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “This will be kind of a tit for tat and the risk is people will forget how extraordinary impeachment is.”

The Founders put impeachment into Article I of the Constitution to keep government officials in check, allowing a way to punish and remove them from office if found guilty of corrupt conduct.

Though the vote for impeaching prior presidents was driven by politics, there was at least some support from across the aisle.

Claire Finkelstein, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the lack of Republicans willing to go against the president suggests a “changed political environment.”

“The body politic is polarized in a way that it has not been for all periods of our country — partly the very Russian interference that spawned the inquiry into the Trump campaign is responsible for that because we know that the Russians really sought to polarize the country,” she said.

“It does not mean the Russians caused this, they were exploiting different divisions within the country.”

House Democrats have said foreign interference could happen again in next year’s election if they didn’t put a check on Mr. Trump through the impeachment tool.

Some lawmakers said Mr. Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president where he pressed for a probe into a political rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, went beyond abuse of power and invited foreign interference into the 2020 election for personal gain.

Keith Whittington, a law professor at Princeton University, thinks the House Democrats’ impeachment crusade against Mr. Trump has not shifted any constitutional precedent in that it was well-known the House would impeach based on “non-criminal abuses of office” before the vote.

“The more significant precedent will be the political one. If the Trump impeachment is perceived to be politically and electorally successful for the Democrats, then I do think it will encourage additional partisan impeachment efforts down the road,” he said.

Following the impeachment of Mr. Clinton in 1998, his approval ratings remained strong. Thus far, polls have not shown Mr. Trump’s impeachment damaging his reelection chances with independent voters and key swing states.

Ilya Shapiro, a constitutional scholar with the Cato Institute, predicts the political precedent could remain the same between 1998 and now.

“The ‘precedent’ remains the same: As a matter of politics, don’t bother impeaching unless popular opinion is strongly in your favor,” Mr. Shapiro said.

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