Al Franken ended his abbreviated tenure in the Senate on a note of defiance. “There is some irony that I am leaving,” Franken said, “while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.”
Franken, who has been credibly accused of groping and kissing multiple women uninvited, announced his resignation this way on the floor of the Senate, in part, it stands to reason, so that this indictment of the GOP would be memorialized in the congressional record. His decision followed an outpouring of calls for his resignation, including from Republicans who couldn’t possibly square the standards they set forth for Franken with the standards to which they hold Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
We’re seeing a culture of harassment & assault being exposed on a daily basis. Whether you are in the media, politics, or anywhere else abuse of power is unacceptable & shouldn’t be tolerated at any place at any level. Sen. Franken must know that & that’s why he must step down.
— Sen. Lisa Murkowski (@lisamurkowski) December 6, 2017
It is convenient to mock these Republicans for inconsistency, but only because it is taken for granted that Democrats in Congress believe Franken, Moore, and Trump should all be held to the same standard. Yet it is striking just how muddled Democratic messaging has been on this point.
Before Franken’s first accuser came forward, no leading Democrats called on Trump to resign over the multiple, credible allegations of sexual assault against him, and his admission that he committed sexual assaults serially. After the movement to hold sexual abusers accountable reached Capitol Hill, leading Democrats remained mealymouthed about the appropriate remedy for the fact that the president is such an abuser. On Wednesday, the Democratic leaders of the House issued a joint statement nothing that “legitimate questions have been raised about Trump’s fitness to lead this nation,” in the course opposing a rank and file resolution calling for Trump’s impeachment. Only after Franken resigned did the inexorable logic of his decision begin to seep into Democratic thinking about the orange, bedentured elephant in the room.
We have a president who acknowledged on tape that he assaulted women. I would hope that he pays attention to what’s going on and think about resigning.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 7, 2017
With a tweet Sanders can create an awkward news cycle for Republican leaders, but only a sustained and unified message from Democratic leaders will force Republicans to address the double standard they are attempting to set for Democratic politicians and members of their own party. The simple thing would be for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the House and Senate Minority Leaders, to call on Trump to resign, to call on the Senate to expel Roy Moore, to accept one standard for all elected leaders. But the questions Trump’s presidency, the movement for accountability for abusive men, and the resignations of Al Franken and John Conyers confront us with are profound and complex. They compel us to think deeply not just about whether Trump is fit for office, or if and how he should be removed, but how to retrofit our political system, so that the Trumps and Moores of the future never make it as far as their predecessors have.
We should stipulate the obvious, which is that nothing Democrats might do or say will convince Donald Trump to resign, or convince Republicans to adopt the ethic that has driven two Democrats from office in the past week. If politics is downstream from culture, then it makes sense that Democrats, who took days to abandon John Conyers and weeks to lose confidence in Franken, lagged the culture a bit. By the same token, though, the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump and Moore suggests the right wing has forged a sick and dangerous counterculture, and the GOP is downstream of it.
Yet the fact that Republicans will not be immediately moved by calls for Trump to resign shouldn’t discourage Democrats from putting a lot of thought into what exactly the challenges of the moment call for. If it called for Franken to resign, why not Trump? If Trump should resign, why shouldn’t he be impeached? If he should be impeached, should his venal corruption form the basis of the inquiry alone, or should his conduct with women be a part it too? And how should we reform our political system, so Trump doesn’t set a precedent that anyone as compromised as him can can escape scrutiny so long as a congressional majority behaves like a protection racket.
One possible answer, as Vox’s Ezra Klein has argued, would be for Democrats to abandon their institutional and political reluctance to call for impeachment, and to lower the bar for impeachment in general. “It is a principle that sounds radical until you say it, at which point it sounds obvious,” he writes. “Being extremely bad at the job of president of the United States should be enough to get you fired.”
A principle like this would presumably cover politicians who abuse women, who are reckless, vainglorious, corrupt, criminal, or, in Trump’s case, all of the above.
But it would also reinforce the arbitrariness that has untethered the impeachment power from any consistent principle. Republicans at least claimed to believe Barack Obama was bad at the job of being president, but existing norms inhibited them from trying to impeach him. By contrast, it is beyond question that if Obama conducted himself the way Trump does, they would have impeached Obama without hesitation, even as they help Trump get away with everything. By today’s standards, who does and does not get impeached is governed by a mix of partisanship and institutional self-preservation; under a looser regime, partisanship would be the only controlling factor. Every president who didn’t maintain partisan control of Congress for four or eight years would end up subject to an impeachment inquiry. Routinizing impeachment would institutionalize a kind of bad-faith Benghazi ethic that we should want to discredit, and weaken faith in the electoral process itself.
This is a concern that extends not just to the impeachment power, but to the power of congressional bodies to expel members, and even to the questions of when and why a member of Congress should resign. At the end of the day, it was probably proper of Al Franken to resign. If Roy Moore wins the Alabama Senate race, I think it would be for the best if the Senate immediately expelled him. I obviously think Trump needs to be removed from office. But these judgments are not as close as the debates surrounding each of these men would make you think. Elections are far more sacrosanct than employment contracts, and generally speaking we should be more reluctant to rend the former than the latter.
This point is inconvenient for Democrats who, having seized the high ground, want to deploy their moral authority against Republicans who are defending at least three credibly accused abusers. But what if the next outed abuser turns out to be a Democratic senator from a state with a Republican governor? They won’t love the Franken standard if that happens, and for good reasons.
Just because normalizing the expulsion of politicians is a bad idea, though, doesn’t mean we have to be stuck with a status quo where Trump can’t be dislodged, but any Democrat in Congress can.
Democrats can and should point out that Trump and Moore are unfit for public service—not just because fairness dictates they must follow Franken, but because what they stand accused of is far, far worse than what Franken did. They should also compile institutional reform ideas, much like the Watergate Babies did, so that we have sturdier guardrails in place the next time a Trump-like figure tries to take power in America.
If Roy Moore becomes a senator, he will face the same Ethics Committee process Al Franken submitted to before he resigned. That process should be strengthened to assure that members of Congress who are found to have done what Moore is accused of doing automatically face an expulsion vote. The Ethics Committee only has jurisdiction over members of Congress, but since the House and Senate each make their own rules, they could adopt rules that require them to initiate a formal oversight inquiry of any president who faces public accusations of sexual abuse. The reason there is no congressional investigation of Trump’s sexual assaults is that Republicans in Congress have decided there shouldn’t be one.
It has become cliche to note that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one, but it could easily be a more rule-bound one. As it stands, the only things that can compel Republicans in Congress to take impeachment seriously are the national political climate, and their own senses of integrity. The norm that obstruction of justice constitutes a high crime will be meaningless as long as Republicans remain craven and Trump remains popular in their districts.
But in the future, House rules can dictate that a finding by a congressional committee or the Justice Department that the president obstructed justice (or profited from the presidency or otherwise made mockery of the rule of law) automatically triggers an impeachment inquiry.
The act of running for president could likewise be more rule-bound. Had Trump been required (by party rules or state or federal law) to disclose his tax returns before appearing on ballots, he probably would have begged off of running. Congress could similarly force the IRS to disclose the tax returns of any elected official who declined to adhere to transparency norms voluntarily. Conflict of interest laws and rules could be broadened, so that future presidents can’t use their offices to enrich themselves, or so that presidents who refuse to liquidate business and investment assets become automatically subject to congressional scrutiny or a comprehensive independent counsel-style investigation and audit.
Ultimately, the partisan signals that now determine who faces consequences for their actions can only become neutral ones if the country insists upon it. If Roy Moore loses in Alabama, or Democrats win back the House in a landslide, Republicans might learn that there are consequences to coddling lawless and reprehensible men. A national public reckoning with all the damage Trump has done might trickle upstream so that conservative voters in America come to accept that empowering men like him is immoral. But until that happens, we need some failsafes. New rules and processes won’t change a culture that tolerates pedophilia and corruption to secure tax cuts and right wing judges. But they might protect the rest of us from the politicians who thrive in that culture.