In 1787, the delegates in Philadelphia narrowed their list down to “Treason & bribery, or other high crimes & misdemeanors against the United States.” In preparing the final draft of the Constitution, the Committee on Style deleted the phrase “against the United States,” presumably because it is implied.
“What, then, is an impeachable offense?” Gerald Ford, the Michigan Republican and House Minority Leader, asked in 1970. “The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” That wasn’t an honest answer; it was a depressingly cynical one. Ford had moved to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, accusing him of embracing a “hippie-yippie-style revolution,” indicting him for a decadent life style, and alleging financial improprieties, charges that appeared, to Ford’s critics, to fall well short of impeachable offenses. In 2017, Nancy Pelosi claimed that a President cannot be impeached who has not committed a crime (a position she would not likely take today). According to “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” by the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who testified before Congress on the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors” during the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, both Ford and Pelosi were fundamentally wrong. “High crimes and misdemeanors” does have a meaning. An impeachable offense is an abuse of the power of the office that violates the public trust, runs counter to the national interest, and undermines the Republic. To believe that words are meaningless is to give up on truth. To believe that Presidents can do anything they like is to give up on self-government.
Jill Lepore, “You’re Fired”, The New Yorker (28 October 2019), 28.