June 20 marked the end of Trinity Term, the British universities’ version of spring semester. “End of term” also signals summer adjournment of the iconic, 196-year-old Oxford Union debating society. There, on the eve of Trinity Term’s passing into this ancient university’s rich history, I had the privilege of presenting arguments in favor of a provocative resolution: “That President Donald J. Trump should not be impeached.” Happily, no riots erupted. To the contrary, not even voices were raised in anger or outrage. Pointed questions flowed freely, to be sure, but civility reigned supreme.
My arguments as presented before a surprisingly respectful audience were threefold: First, America’s Constitution calls for the powerful anti-democratic measure of impeachment to be employed only under the most extreme circumstances such as the profoundly serious crimes of treason and bribery. The Constitution’s familiar but opaque catch-all term — “other high crimes and misdemeanors” — are to be read in tandem with the two specifically enumerated offenses, thus warranting proof of a compellingly serious crime before the nation invokes the drastic measure of presidential impeachment and removal from office.
Second, I asserted that the impeachment of President Clinton, an episode with which I am more than passingly familiar, demonstrated that crimes such as perjury and obstruction of justice were insufficient to warrant removal of a popularly elected President. To the contrary, an offense far more grave was required, not as a matter of constitutional law but as a matter of prudence informed by our country’s historical experience. Our nation tends toward the default position of staying the course rather than disrupting the ordinary course of presidential elections.
Third, and finally, I argued that the report of Robert Mueller III did not even allege that President Trump had committed the crime of obstruction of justice, in sharp contrast to clear-cut examples of criminality in the cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. As clarified by the jointly written statement of the special counsel and the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. Mueller’s report described a series of what he called “obstructive acts.” However, the special counsel did not reach the ultimate judgment that the nation’s current chief executive had actually committed a crime. Once again, the Clinton saga reminds the American people of a sober lesson: Proven criminality in the Oval Office, standing alone, is insufficient to overturn a national election. As to President Trump, no crimes were even alleged by the special counsel, much less proven.
For good measure, as with the timing of the ill-fated Clinton impeachment, a presidential election year is right around the corner. Indeed, here we are in late June of a pre-election year with the Iowa caucuses only six months away. We should thus allow the democratic process to run its course.
The ensuing question-and-answer session, guided by the Union’s impressive student president, was delightfully lively and unfailingly civil. No protests were launched, no invectives hurled, no profanity uttered. To the contrary, the 40-minute Q&A was characterized by highly articulate and appropriately probing questions from the Union’s student members.
Outside the Union, the only visible protests were directed not at Donald Trump but at the repressive government of China’s Xi Jinping. The Oxford displays mirrored the large demonstrations several days earlier 35 miles away in London’s Trafalgar Square as the international community rose up in enthusiastic support of brave residents of freedom-loving Hong Kong.
Whatever President Trump’s popularity might be at Oxford, the debating society offered heartening proof of the enduring strength of Western democracies. (Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once touted the Oxford Union as “the last bastion of free speech in the Western World.”) The society and Oxford campus stood in vivid contrast to unfolding events in Hong Kong where peaceful protesters, demonstrating against a proposed extradition law orchestrated by Beijing’s authoritarian regime, were met with riot batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.
As celebrations of America’s independence loom, we do well as a free people to lift up in thanksgiving foundational freedoms of speech and assembly such as the Oxford Union, which has showcased everyone from Republican Sen. John McCain to former Trump White House Counsel Don McGahn to Democratic strategist James Carville. On the other side of the world, the brave men and women filling the streets of Hong Kong remind us how freedom is ever and always under assault. Such grim realities beg us to be mindful as well as merry this Fourth of July.