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As Trump's acquittal looms, the politics of a possible censure change

When a group of moderate House Dems talked up the idea of censuring Trump in December, it was easy to dismiss. Now, it's a different story.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.

In mid-December, Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who represents a Republican-friendly district, found himself in a difficult spot. Like most people, the New Jersey Democrat had seen the evidence against Donald Trump and had recognized the president's guilt, but Gottheimer still hoped to find an alternative to impeachment -- a step that wouldn't be popular with his constituents.

And so, Gottheimer got to work looking for a bipartisan solution, reaching out to House Republicans about a possible censure resolution that would formally rebuke Trump for orchestrating an illegal extortion scheme. The point would be to hold the president accountable for obvious wrongdoing with a symbolic gesture.

The trouble, not surprisingly, was that the Garden State congressman couldn't find any GOP takers. House Republicans, for all intents and purposes, said there were two choices: impeachment or nothing. Gottheimer, like 230 of his colleagues, chose the former over the latter.

Two months later, the issue has returned to the fore under different circumstances.

...Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia, introduced a resolution to censure the president instead of removing him from office. [...]A formal censure of the president could be a unifying way forward, Manchin said in his floor speech earlier."Censure would allow this body to unite across party lines and as an equal branch of government formally denounce the president's actions and hold him accountable. His behavior cannot go unchecked by the Senate," said Manchin, who's had a good relationship with Trump in the past.

I don't seriously expect the Republican-led Senate to embrace Manchin's idea, but it'd be worth hearing their arguments against it.

After all, more than a few GOP senators have now conceded that Trump's actions were unambiguously wrong, but they don't care enough about his misdeeds to vote to convict him on the two articles of impeachment. But the resulting dynamic is similar to the one Gottheimer confronted in the House two months ago, except this time, it's Senate Republicans being told, following tomorrow's inevitable vote, that it's censure or nothing.

More to the point, the question for the several GOP senators who've acknowledged Trump's guilt is simple: what's the proper remedy for a president who's caught orchestrating an illegal extortion scheme? If it's not removal from office, is it censure? Or is it formal congressional indifference?

To be sure, presidential censure resolutions are not common, but they're not unprecedented, either. In 1999, for example, a bipartisan majority of 56 senators linked arms on a procedural censure vote against Bill Clinton. That wasn't a large enough majority to advance the measure, but it was a reminder that this is a legitimate option available to lawmakers.

Indeed, a man by the name of Mitch McConnell was among the 12 Senate Republicans who voted in the majority at the time. It was also embraced by the left: the progressive activist group originally got its name from a Clinton-era mantra: "Censure and Move On."

There are other examples from history. As regular readers may recall, the Senate censured Andrew Jackson in 1834; James Polk was censured by the House in 1848, and a select Senate committee censured John Tyler in 1842.

Don't be surprised if Senate Democratic leaders look for ways to add Donald Trump to that list in the coming days and weeks.