In the front section of the print edition of today’s New York Times—on page A13 in the version printed for the Washington, D.C., area, and for all I know, in other areas, too—a full-page ad appears with the headline “Censure Donald Trump.” Beneath the headline are 34 grounds for censure that the 57,000 signatories to this campaign are telling Congress are more than sufficient cause for the House and Senate to pass censure resolutions condemning the president. At the bottom the page, readers are directed to a website—www.censuredonaldtrump.com—where they can add their names to the petition.
In the current political climate, censure is something of a halfway house between impeachment—which only a fraction of Democratic senators and representatives support, fearing it would both eclipse all other battles and energize the right—and the individual statements of indignation that legislators are regularly compelled to issue in response to Trump’s steady stream of outrages.
Censure, by contrast, is a course that a majority of Democrats on the Hill are likely willing to embrace. Earlier this month, nearly 150 House Democrats signed on to a censure resolution that condemned Trump for the Nordic-uber-alles racism of his shithole sonata. Last August, three Democratic House members—New York’s Jerry Nadler (now the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee), New Jersey’s Bonnie Watson Coleman, and Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal authored a censure resolution (to which more than 120 of their colleagues signed on) excoriating Trump for his so-what reaction to the racist violence in Charlottesville.
By listing 34 grounds for censure, the petition in today’s Times is more comprehensive than those two resolutions. Its causes can be grouped in several categories, including undermining the rule of law (for instance, by firing James Comey and seeking to undermine the FBI); repeatedly engaging in racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior and promoting racist, sexist, and homophobic government policies; intimidating the press; endangering the environment; imperiling Americans’ health (by the repeated efforts to repeal the ACA, and by the government’s indifference to the plight of Puerto Rico); and recklessly threatening nuclear war.
Congressional censure has a long legislative history. Congress has censured its own members at least 40 times, most prominently Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom his colleagues voted to condemn for bringing the Senate into “dishonor and disrepute.” In 1834, the Senate censured President Andrew Jackson for withholding from Congress the documents pertaining to his withdrawal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States.
The censure petition in today’s Times was the brainchild of Jules Bernstein, the doyen of the Washington, D.C., pro-labor bar, and Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007 in the administration of President George W. Bush. Painter, a lifelong Republican, is a professor of corporate law at the University of Minnesota. When they began their campaign last year, Painter said he urged “our fellow citizens to join us in our effort, and I implore every member of Congress to exercise his or her authority to censure President Trump for his gross misconduct in office as specified in our Petition.”
While the likelihood that any of Painter’s fellow Republicans on the Hill will support a censure resolution is as close to zero as is mathematically possible, a comprehensive censure resolution does present congressional Democrats with a unifying rallying cry. Once the list of signatories to the petition in today’s Times grows, its sponsors will present it to Democrats on the Hill. It in no way supplants the efforts of California businessman Tom Steyer and others to advance the cause of impeachment, but since neither censure nor impeachment will be invoked by a Republican-controlled Congress, the efforts may be seen as advancing down parallel tracks, further mobilizing an electorate that will wrest that control from Republicans come November.