Andrew Sullivan reviews two books on whether Trump can be impeached

In today’s New York Times, writer Andrew Sullivan reviews two books by Cass Sunstein (one authored, one edited) about whether Trump is impeachable given what we know. The verdict is “probably not.” Here are the two books, and click on the screenshot below them to read Sullivan’s take. As a highly respected Constitutional lawyer and scholar (he used to be at Chicago, but moved to Harvard), Sunstein knows whereof he speaks. But this is Washington, Jake.

A Citizen’s Guide
By Cass R. Sunstein
199 pp. Harvard University. Paper, $7.95.

Authoritarianism in America
Edited by Cass R. Sunstein
481 pp. Dey St./Morrow. Paper, $17.99.

The first book (an excerpt of Sullivan’s review):

Where does this leave us with respect to Donald Trump? Sunstein smartly doesn’t answer the question directly — instead teasing out various hypotheticals with some similarities to our current concerns. Here are a few: directing the Justice Department to prosecute someone for political reasons; pledging in advance to pardon anyone in law enforcement who commits a crime; using the F.B.I. or C.I.A. to get evidence of criminality against a political opponent; egregiously defaulting on his core presidential responsibilities; secretly bribing others in a direct quid pro quo or similarly receiving bribes; and secretly cooperating with a foreign power to promulgate false information against a political opponent. Sunstein thinks each of these is an impeachable offense — as they almost certainly are.

. . . With Trump, these analogies are tantalizingly close but probably not close enough.

Sunstein also feels the Russia affair also hasn’t risen to the level of “impeachability”

And the second book, the anthology:

What makes Trump immune is that he is not a president within the context of a healthy republican government. He is a cult leader of a movement that has taken over a political party — and he specifically campaigned on a platform of one-man rule. This fact permeates “Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America,” a collection of essays by a number of writers that has been edited by Sunstein, which concludes, if you read between the lines, that “it” already has.

No, Trump is not about to initiate a coup, or suspend elections or become a dictator. The more likely model for American authoritarianism is that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or the Fidesz party in Hungary. The dismemberment of a public discourse centered on objective truth is a key first step, fomented by unceasing dissemination of outright lies from the very top, metabolized by tribal social media, ever more extreme talk radio and what is essentially a state propaganda channel, Fox News. The neutering of the courts is the second step — and Trump is well on his way to (constitutionally) establishing a federal judiciary whose most important feature will be reliable assent to executive power.

Sullivan’s conclusion is grim—too grim for me to contemplate:

There is nothing in the Constitution’s formal operation that can prevent this. Impeachment certainly cannot. As long as one major political party endorses it, and a solid plurality of Americans support such an authoritarian slide, it is unstoppable. The founders knew that without a virtuous citizenry, the Constitution was a mere piece of paper and, in Madison’s words, “no theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure.” Franklin was blunter in forecasting the moment we are now in: He believed that the American experiment in self-government “can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” You can impeach a president, but you can’t, alas, impeach the people. They voted for the kind of monarchy the American republic was designed, above all else, to resist; and they have gotten one.


  1. Merilee Olson
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Let’s maybe confer tomorrow. My tummy’s been a bit off…

    Typo ergo sum Merilee


  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think anyone here is an expert on this question and neither Sullivan or the book’s authors are knowledgeable in exactly what Mueller has. At this very moment, even Mueller does not know what all he will have if allowed to continue to conclusion. So much of what they are doing is speculating and even we as plain old citizens can do that. Same as Ben Franklin many years ago when asked what kind of government they had made. He said a Republic if you can keep it.

    • Posted March 23, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      “…even Mueller does not know what all he will have if allowed to continue to conclusion.”

      Agreed. Seems like the best Mr Mueller can do is to set perjury traps. A competent prosecutor like Mueller could indict a ham sandwich.

      He has been aided by Rod Rosenstein who has given Mr Mueller a carte blanche. The Special Prosecutor’s authorization does not specify any crime, but rather directs Mr Mueller to finger Mr Trump for a crime, any crime.

      “Show me the man, and I will find the crime”, said Laventiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the NKVD. Has the US come to this, that the DOJ first identifies the man and then mounts a huge team of prosecutors who toil for over a year to find a crime?

      This is at least absurd. At worst, it is the end of what we once thought the Bill of Rights meant.

      What about the actual crimes that have been covered up and then uncovered by Congressional committees?

      It was Mrs Clinton who colluded with others in and out of the previous administration to cover up the use of a private server for official emails.

      When the IG’s report is released later this month, we will see how the DOJ and FBI leadership used the “Russian dossier” funded by the DNC and the Clinton Campaign to dupe the FISA Court into allowing the Obama Administration to spy on the Trump Campaign.

      In April 2017 Justice Rosemary Collyer of the FISA Court, in her 99-page authorization of the 4th FISA warrant, detailed how agencies of the US Government obtain and distribute unminimized communications of American citizens in contravention of the FISA statute’s attempt to preserve the protections of the 4th Amendment.

      I have read Justice Collyer’s decision, including at least 50 page of which describes how the NSA distribute raw communications data.

      An unverified dossier paid for by the Clinton Campaign was used to obtain at least one of the four FISA warrants to spy on the political opposition. That was at the very least a fraud upon the court.

      At worst it tells us that American democracy came very close to its demise, but for Mrs Clinton’s loss of the election for the presidency.

      Disclaimer: I am not a Republican, nor even an American.

      As I Canadian, I have favoured the Democratic party most of my life. As a Canadian I cannot understand how the Democratic Party can oppose the reform of the US immigrations system. I note that Mr Trump has said that he wants an immigration system like the Canadian system.

  3. Hempenstein
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    The pressure continues to mount, tho – things like the outcome of the Lamb/Saccone special election in PA. If just one R senator would rise to claim the Howard Baker seat, that could trigger either a sea change in the support he’s gotten thus far, or a CVA, either of which would be acceptable. And with the latter he could escape Mueller.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think one Republican Senator coming to his senses would make much difference to the rest of Fantasyland.

      • Hempenstein
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Jeff Flake sounds like he’s getting close. Once one goes, the inertia is broken, and then the majority vote is lost.

        • GBJames
          Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Flake has already announced his retirement. It doesn’t matter what he says to the rest of the cult.

  4. GBJames
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I find Sullivan usually makes sense when he isn’t talking about religion. Sadly, I fear he is right.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Sullivan stated in his writing that impeachment had been tried 4 times. And he also seem to be saying since it never went through, it would not this time either. That is a lame part of his argument for a few reasons – one being that just because it has not gone through the whole system does not mean it still cannot. That is a damn poor reason for anything. Well, said the Wright brothers, we never did it before so why try now.

      The other thing is, the Johnson impeachment just missed by one vote. They damn near got him and probably would have if Johnson had not retained Lincoln’s secretary of state. The Nixon example never got a chance because he resigned but most would say he was toast.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

        I think a president’s removal by conviction in the senate is a long-shot under the US system. If the votes to convict are there — as senate elder Barry Goldwater assured Richard Nixon they were in 1974 — I think any remotely reasonable president would spare the nation and him/herself the trauma and expense of a senate trial by resigning (as Nixon did).

        Then again, Trump has no respect whatever for the norms and traditions of this nation or his office, and he hardly qualifies as “remotely reasonable.” He’ll likely have no compunction over putting our country through a constitutional crisis and institutional upheaval.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          With a little help from Russia I think this guy would leave office in about 5 minutes. The information from what Steele obtained from one of his sources (the collector) explains the Russians had kompromat on him. Sexual indiscretions that were an open secret in Moscow. The Russians had been targeting Trump for years. Trump is so blackmailed by Putin he is little more than a puppet.

          • Randall Schenck
            Posted March 18, 2018 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

            I will even go further and suggest that when Mueller lays it out for all to see, there will be no need for impeachment. It will be easy for these useless republicans because this guy will simply be gone.

        • Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          Remember that Nixon (at least sometimes) also listened to his critics – the students etc.

  5. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    . . . With Trump, these analogies are tantalizingly close but probably not close enough.

    Sigh. The buffoon cannot even do buffoonery right.

  6. Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  7. Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    1) The obstruction of justice charge is a slam-dunk; the collusion is a work-in-progress;

    2) I trust Cass Sunstein as far as I can throw him.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Sunstein, as I recall, was on Obama’s shortlist for a SCOTUS appointment (and, as I recall, I was rooting for him).

    Sullivan’s take on the menace posed by Trump’s presidency is similar to the potential dystopia posited by conservative commentator David Frum here and in his recent book Trumpocracy.

  9. Historian
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    The question of whether Trump can be or should be impeached is but a minor chapter in the corruption of American democracy. The Republican Party has been captured and supported by a radical faction whose vision of America is quite at odds with the majority of the citizenry. This vision is based on culture, not economics. For them America should be white, religious, heterosexual and gun toting. Immigration needs to be restricted to maintain this type of America. Despite their protestations, they are not anti-government. They expect a strong federal government to protect these beliefs. The fact that Trump’s government is totally pro-big business is irrelevant to them, if they think about this at all. Only in times of great economic distress such as the Great Depression or the Great Recession will economic issues dictate voting habits. People who are mystified why working class people voted for Trump do not understand this. Moreover, for such people democracy is only to be cherished when it works to support their cultural ends. Otherwise, it can be discarded. Hence, Trump’s shenanigans bother them little. Finally, the nature of the American electoral system has allowed rural conservatives to have an out of proportion say in the running of government. Thus, democracy is imperiled because a faction of white people consider their race, religion, and guns more important than anything else.

  10. nicky
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    1- “secretly cooperating with a foreign power to promulgate false information against a political opponent” as well as 2- obstructing justice (he incriminated himself in the Comey affair) appear, to use Matt’s words, slam-dunk.
    It is only if 1- the Reps retain power in House and Senate and 2- remain sycophantically floormatting to this clown, that Mr Trump can escape impeachment. Neither 1 nor 2 appears very unlikely.
    The fact he became POTUS by election fraud (voter disenfranchisement and counting ‘irregularities’) appears not -for unfathomable reasons- not on the books.

    • nicky
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      And one might add that the ‘foreign power’ is a hostile one.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    There is also the time that Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

    People tend to fall for despots during times of severe cultural disorientation. It fed the rise of the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and now it is helping the moderately lesser evil of Don Drumpf.

    The question of whether he is in practice impeachable and whether he is legally impeachable are two separate questions.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      I think you stole my line at #2. But that is okay. I think the legally impeachable is easily accomplished but the practice is still to come. I would settle for just hauling the guy out of the oval office in a straight jacket.

      • nicky
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        Yes. I love that idea of a straight jacket. I do not generally condone the use of straight jackets, but that is what is really needed here. 🙂

  12. Posted March 18, 2018 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    He should be impeached for masquerading as a POTUS.
    Would a portrait be hanging on the White House walls if he was impeached?
    If not, that’s another reason 🙂

  13. Mark R.
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Well, regardless of any surmising and crystal-ball predictions, I do find it apparent and crazy that there are two books discussing facts about a Trump impeachment.

    Unprecedented? I’d bet large on that but don’t care to research. The dipshit-in-chief has been POTUS (gag) for just over a year and already has well-regarded journalists pondering this, and two books discussing it. That in itself speaks volumes.

  14. Ken Phelps
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    “…nothing you can do, folks, although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is…”

    It would be ironic if the second amendment, as Mr. Trump suggested back in the campaign, was put there by the framers for a legitimate purpose.

  15. Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I even want Trump to be impeached. Would a President Pence be any better? How many presidents would we have to impeach before we got a good one?

  16. Diane G.
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 2:28 am | Permalink


  17. another fred
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about impeachment, but authoritarian rule is on its way. It will take a few years yet, maybe a couple of decades, but the legislature is barely functioning now.

    As the Congress fails to tend to necessary duties the Executive will continue to grow. More and more “Emergencies” will be declared. The ultimate “Emergency” powers of the Executive are immense.

    A system under stress reacts in a direction to relieve the stress – Le Chatelier.

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