Joel Weiner: Equality under the law includes the President

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 5:34pm

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The Michigan Daily

As the House of Representatives proceed with their impeachment inquiry, more evidence has come to light regarding a suspicious, almost certainly illegal, deal with Ukraine. While representatives consider how they will vote if and when the House holds a formal vote of impeachment, they ought to decide the same way they would in a civilan grand jury investigation. 

In an impeachment inquiry, the House’s role is similar to that of a grand jury during a criminal trial. It hears evidence and decides whether to proceed with charges — here called articles of impeachment. Since grand jury investigations are closed to the public, the Republican outcry about the House investigation being closed is completely unwarranted, especially when one considers that a Republican-controlled House conducted a similar closed-door investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decisions regarding Benghazi. In any other scenario relating to a public official, a grand jury would almost certainly decide to charge the defendant, but since this is the president of the United States it makes sense that the House is being so scrupulous. That said, if they determine that they have enough evidence to indict, they absolutely should because one of the most basic tenets of democracy is equality under the law. 

The understanding that a powerful politician is still subject to the same laws as a normal citizen undergirds our criminal justice system. People should have a reasonable level of confidence that being charged or not charged with a crime is a result of the evidence and only the evidence, and while the current system often does not actually follow this ideal, holding our politicians accountable for their actions is a step in the right direction.

When people can flout laws, tyranny could follow. One of the first steps in turning a democracy into a tyrannical state is to create a double standard between lawmakers and regular citizens. A distinction between the two could elevate a leader to a protected legal status that could reduce their accountability and thus would enable them to engage in activities considered criminal if done by normal citizens. This is a stepping stone to authoritarian rule because powerful leaders can begin to disregard the entire system of laws upholding our country, which prevents them from being responsible for the laws they create. If a lawmaker is free from answering to the rule of law, they can use it as a tool for their personal gain rather than as a foundation for our society.

The argument that, even if there is enough evidence to suggest that the president is guilty, impeachment would be too disruptive for the country is absurd. We as Americans are all expected to follow our nation’s laws, and that includes the president. The Office of Legal Council policy that Robert Mueller cited during his testimony to Congress this summer says a sitting president cannot be charged in a crime by a federal prosecutor because doing so would unconstitutionally undermine the president’s ability to fulfill his or her duties. That does not mean the president is above the law, rather that there is a different process for charging him or her with a crime. That obligation falls not on the Department of Justice but on Congress to investigate, impeach and ultimately convict a president. This different process alone accounts for the higher responsibility of the president than a normal citizen.

While being cautious with impeachment is important, failing to impeach because the president is considered “too busy” is a standard that protects every other powerful person accused of a crime. If anything, influential people in our society should be subject to more scrutiny than others because their actions have further-reaching consequences. Above all else, their positions are responsibilities, and those responsibilities ought to be insulated against potential corruption. Furthermore, subjecting these influential lawmakers to their own laws will force them to examine any potential legislation or policy through a personal lens, which creates a powerful incentive to be an effective policymaker. 

Impeaching a president does not mean they will be removed from office, nor does it mean that they will be ineffective at their job. Though two presidents have been impeached in U.S. history, neither was removed from office. Impeachment is simply an agreement to charge the president with a crime, not convict. Subjecting a president to congressional scrutiny through impeachment ensures that their conduct does not betray U.S. interests or citizens. 

When the House evaluates the evidence brought to light by their impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, they should disregard Trump’s status as president. Working with foreign governments to undermine America’s democratic processes is an offense that should be considered with the utmost objectivity because it can be so detrimental to our nation. Allowing such crimes to go uninvestigated because of the president’s power could set a far worse precedent for future leaders than would passing articles of impeachment.

Joel Weiner can be reached at jgweiner@umich.edu.