Today, Trump Election and Anniversary of Clinton Impeachment
Today the Electoral College will vote to elect Donald J. Trump president of the United States. It is also the eighteenth anniversary of the impeachment of a president: William J. Clinton. As a new president is elected and the impeachment of a president is remembered, it is worth reflecting–with gratitude–on the fact that we Americans live in a polity in which no official–however exalted his station–is above the law. The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. And yet, presidents are answerable for their misdeeds under our political and legal systems. And presidents enter office knowing that they are answerable. It is, of course, true that presidents sometimes get away with unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful activities. Enforcement isn’t perfect. But presidents can’t simply count on getting away with flouting the laws. And that is an important check on the abuse of power. It is something worth celebrating.
It was a sad thing for the nation when, in 1973, a president had to be forced to resign under threat of impeachment for his role in the covering up of criminal activity by his subordinates. But it was a good thing that Richard Nixon was held accountable for his abuse of power. It was a reminder of how blessed we are to live in a system where, however bruised and battered, the Rule of Law endures. It was a sad thing for the nation when, in 1998, a president had to be impeached for his perjury and obstruction of justice. But it was a good thing that Bill Clinton was held accountable for his crimes. Of course, there are those who think he shouldn’t have been impeached. And there are those who think that he should not only have been impeached by the House of Representatives but also removed from office by the Senate. But the system managed to produce what the American people seemed to regard as the right outcome: impeachment but not removal from office. Clinton did not simply “get away with” lying under oath and conspiring to hide evidence. And that is a good thing–something worth celebrating.
Having a functioning constitutional system that checks power and holds even the highest officials accountable is, to say the least, something difficult to achieve and maintain. It is scarcely the norm in human history. We are blessed as a nation to have it. Let’s reflect on that today–in a spirit of grateful patriotism.
Robert George is Chairman at United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, McCormick Professor of Juriprudence at Princeton University, Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, and author of Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.