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Startling discovery: Impeachment is not bringing out the best in Trump

It seems quaint to recall a time when president appeared merely guilty of obstruction of justice

President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House before speaking to members of the media in Washington on Oct. 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House before speaking to members of the media in Washington on Oct. 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible, deleting with a penknife those portions of the New Testament that troubled his deist views. In similar fashion, Donald Trump has apparently created his own Constitution by ripping out any clause that challenges his power or deflates his blimp-sized ego.

Monday, in the midst of the reality show that he called a Cabinet meeting, Trump denounced what he called “this phony emoluments clause.” In most versions of the Constitution, Article 1, Section 9 bans “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

But that line has clearly been ripped from the Trump Constitution. The president even creatively added to his Constitution passages like defining “treason” to cover any action or statement by Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff that challenges his power.

Of course, there is another possibility: The president has less knowledge of the Constitution than a mediocre student in a ninth-grade civics class. But that seems so unlikely that it is barely worthy of consideration.

In a typically bizarre 24-hour period, Trump’s claim about the phony emoluments clause was only topped by his Sunday tweet calling his new Defense secretary “Mark Esperanto” instead of Esper. Presumably, Trump prefers Esperanto to a language like Latin that has given us the phrase “quid pro quo.”

Can we all agree that the specter of impeachment may not be bringing out the best in Donald J. Trump?

Trump Unchained

The impeachment efforts aimed at Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton mostly revolved around what these amoral presidents had done in the past. But with Trump, the rap sheet changes with each shrill and randomly capitalized tweet.

Unlike other beleaguered presidents, Trump appears to have no one around him whom he fully trusts. And certainly the recent performances of Mick Mulvaney and Rudy Giuliani suggest that this is a rare moment when Trump’s judgment about other people may actually be right. Having long ago driven anyone competent from his inner circle, Trump is left fuming over inept public defenders afflicted with foot-in-the-mouth disease.

The result is Trump Unchained or, more accurately, Trump Unhinged. Every time Trump creates a new crisis, it is hard to know whether this is presidential temper tantrum or a deliberate distraction.

Did Trump order the humiliating abandonment of the Kurds because he became irked at generals telling him that we can’t retreat from Syria? Did Trump try to gift (or is it grift?) his Florida resort with the 2020 G-7 meeting as a last-ditch effort to promote his properties while he still has residency privileges in the Oval Office?

If the past week has taught us anything, it is that anyone who makes an “Of course, I’m right, you fool” prediction about the politics and outcome of impeachment should be ignored.

It doesn’t matter if these excessively confident forecasts about the future are being offered on a cable TV news show or behind a set of microphones at a Capitol Hill press conference. The truth is that we are entering waters so uncharted that sea monsters and mermaids are more likely to appear than dry land.

The wild card, of course, is Trump.

Creating White House fires like a pyromaniac who just found a flame-thrower, Trump retains the ability to keep adding to the list of potentially impeachable offenses. It almost seems quaint to recall the days when he appeared merely guilty of obstruction of justice.

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Impeachment goal

Of course, Pelosi and the House Democrats have to decide whether the goal of impeachment is to embarrass Trump or to remove him from office. Any serious effort to enforce the Constitution would require public hearings, a flexible timetable and a sincere effort to sway wavering Republicans.

While Pelosi’s strategy remains tightly guarded, there are strong hints that the House Democrats want to hold an impeachment vote early in the Christmas carol season. As Jim Himes, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Face the Nation” Sunday, “My belief is that the speaker of the House would like to get this wrapped up by the end of the year.”

A Senate impeachment trial in, say, January would have a strange and unpredictable effect on the Democratic presidential race since the six senators currently seeking the nomination (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet) would be confined to Washington six days a week.

Would this give a boost to candidates like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg who would not be required to sit in judgment on the president? Or would so much attention be focused on the trial that the six senators would dominate the newscasts after each day’s presentation of the case?

The Trump defense will, of course, be that old “Lock her up” standby — the Democrats are the ones who are corrupt. Or as the hapless Mulvaney claimed last week, “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. Get over it.”

In truth, no prior president has ever muscled a country like Ukraine by suspending congressionally approved military aid in order to get dirt on an American political rival. But if Trump gets away with it, future presidents — from both parties — will be tempted to emulate his thuggish behavior.

That is why the most important political statement of the week was made by retiring Florida GOP Rep. Francis Rooney, when he explained why he had an open mind on impeachment: “I want to get the facts and do the right thing. Because I’ll be looking at my children a lot longer than I’m looking at anybody in this building.”

“Do the Right Thing” is more than an early movie by Spike Lee. It should be the guiding principle for every member of Congress as they grapple with the unpredictable drama called impeachment.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.