Editorial: House should censure, not impeach, Trump

The Detroit News
President Donald Trump pauses during an event on healthcare prices in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Washington.

With the second week of the House impeachment inquiry finished and the testimony from the most potent witnesses on the record, Democrats still don't have the strong case they're seeking to justify removing President Donald Trump from office.

The president acted inappropriately in asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into the son of political rival Joe Biden, the former vice president and current Democratic presidential candidate. That much is clear from a synopsis of the phone call between the two leaders released by the White House.

Also, there is reason to believe that Trump or his surrogates gave the impression that continued military aid to Ukraine was contingent upon an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden.

Less clear is whether that message was directly conveyed by the White House in a manner that represented a quid pro quo. Wednesday's star witness, Gordon Sondland, the European Union ambassador appointed by Trump, was all over the place in his testimony.

Ambassador Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, center, appears before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.

He began his session before the House Intelligence Committee by stating there was a request for an exchange of favors. He later admitted he only presumed such a request. And finally he recounted a conversation with Trump in which the president told him he wanted nothing from Zelenskiy.

Still, military assistance to Ukraine was withheld for a short period. That's a fact. But it was also released without the Ukrainians conducting an investigation of the Bidens.

The evidence is too much based on hearsay and too conflicting to support impeachment. There is enough, however, to merit a censure charge.

From what we’ve heard so far, it seems clear that Trump was holding aid to Ukraine over the head of the new president in return for an investigation into Biden, and that he was using his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to deliver that message. Yet there is no direct evidence on the record so far to prove this, and Giuliani’s involvement offers Trump some deniability. 

Unless more damning evidence is ahead, the Democrats don't have a case that will stand up in the Senate, where the Republican majority will preside over a trial that could remove the president should the House impeach him.

The Democratic-controlled House should consider shifting toward a formal resolution of censure against Trump, rather than an impeachment.

Censure amounts to a public shaming. It declares that a president has behaved in a manner ill befitting his office. Certainly, that can be said of Trump in the Ukrainian affair.

But it also recognizes the offense does not merit removal from office. That, too, seems appropriate, given the inconclusive testimony so far.

A formal censure by the House requires a simple majority vote, and does not need to be affirmed by the Senate, and vice-versa. The potential of getting bipartisan support for a censure is far greater than for impeachment.

Censure is no slap on the wrist. It's a grave matter. While four presidents have been reprimanded by Congress — Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and William Howard Taft — only one has been actually censured. That was Jackson, who was censured by the Senate in 1834, an action that was later expunged.

A censure, then, would put Trump in rare company. It would also bring a more expedient end to the divisive and distracting proceedings now underway. And from a crass political consideration, it would give Democrats what they're looking for — a powerful weapon to use against Trump in the 2020 campaign.

If the House chooses censure over impeachment, the practical result is the same. He'll still be in office, but will serve under the condemnation of the House, and perhaps even the Senate.

And voters will determine, as they should, Trump's fate next November.