Who Needs High Crimes? We Have Misdemeanors

“High crimes and misdemeanors.” It practically rolls off the tongue these days, as the talk intensifies about ending this chapter of our political history ahead of schedule. What did the president do or say or know and when did he do or say or know it?

Reporters and investigators and politicians and publishers are hot on the trail. Everyone is searching for a smoking gun — some act of treason, some dastardly deed that was done or ordered from the Oval Office.

Now that the Justice Department has appointed Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between President Trump’s associates and Russian officials, we can be sure that talk will intensify quickly.

Mueller makes two former FBI directors with no allegiance to this president who know where the bodies get buried. James Comey was fired by Trump last week, but fired in a way that had to add insult to injury. He learned about it when a television report appeared on a television screen behind him.

The official letter was delivered by Trump’s personal bodyguard. This is the equivalent of two security guards appearing at a worker’s desk with a couple of cardboard boxes and a stopwatch, giving them ten minutes to hand over their keys, empty their desk, and vacate the premises.

So you may as well get used to hearing that phrase — “high crimes and misdemeanors” — often in the months ahead. Trump insists the investigation will prove that his campaign and staff never colluded with the Russians. And that may be true, but it’s not the end of the phrase, much less the end of the story.

Why is everybody working so hard? The easier case to be made is the second condition provided in the Constitution. Today we define “misdemeanors” as minor crimes — shoplifting or jaywalking. That couldn’t be what the framers had in mind. To the Colonial ear, a misdemeanor meant an absence of necessary action — failure to act or protect.

It meant neglect — not showing up for work, not doing the job. The framers included it to say the chief executive could be impeached for what he has done, and also for what he has left undone. Abdication of duty was on the minds of the framers. They knew that there may be times when the nation cannot afford to wait for something bad to happen.

We could make a long list of tasks we expect our president to do that haven’t been done or done well these past four months. Couldn’t a list of these “sins of omission” make a more compelling case for the man’s removal than any of the so-called “high crimes” he may have committed — or worse, that he may yet commit?

If the situation is as perilous as many believe it to be, we may not be afforded the luxury of waiting until a deed has occurred that demonstrates Donald Trump as unfit for the office. That deed may put us over some as-yet undefined edge. Reclaiming our society and our government may by then be out of reach.

Indeed, one red button — with its top-secret authorization code — could bring the end of much more than this presidency. If there’s nobody left to talk about it, there will be no shame in being the last president of the United States. That’s the worst possible outcome and our protections are very thin.

Our society may end, in Robert Frost’s terms, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Large swaths of government are being enfeebled — by leaving positions vacant or filling top positions with people who have wished the department they now lead could be abolished. We have a term for those people who push beyond “small government” into the territory of “no government.”

They are called anarchists, and we shouldn’t allow their suits and ties to distract us from their goal. If their goal is to abolish the government, the Constitution provides a remedy to foil their attempt before they commit any high crimes. Their misdemeanors will suffice.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com. He first became politically active after reading Jonathan Schell’s “The Fate of the Earth” in 1982.