Trump or Pence: Hobson’s Choice

Would our country be better off with Vice President Mike Pence as president or with Donald Trump?

That question has been raised many times starting just weeks after Trump’s inauguration in January. The question can be broken down to this: would our country be served better by a very conservative and strict evangelical Christian, Pence, who won’t drink in mixed company unless his wife is present, or, Trump, who, at the United Nations, threatened to kill 25 million North Koreans by starting a nuclear war, who lies and insults all opponents?

Gail Collins, opinion writer in The New York Times, and many others have raised this question in the past several months. “Lately, Trump’s stupendous instability has actually been looking like a plus,” she wrote. For example, he told Democrats he didn’t want to cut taxes on the rich and wanted to save the Dreamers, despite the fact he was the one who wanted to end their time in America. And if Pence were president, we might see congressional order, which so far has accomplished little. What could that mean? Collins reported that Pence “forced so many Planned Parenthood clinics to close when he was governor of Indiana that it triggered an H.I.V. epidemic.” The Republicans keep trying to kill the Affordable Care Act, lower taxes on the rich, reduce or end restrictions on air-water-land pollution and many continue to deny climate change. Do we want that to go forward?

So, we must ask again: are we better off with a president who knows little about American and world history, governmental process, international relations, science, needs of a rapidly changing work force and more? Or, with Pence, a person who might invoke his religious certainty to work closely with the Republican congress that then could dismantle national health care that serves millions of Americans, lower taxes on the rich, damage international agreements that help keep the peace and provide a means of international discussion without irrational threats to North Korea and other countries?

Is It Possible to Return to ‘Normal’?
David Brooks, conservative columnist for The  New York Times, writes that
“After he leaves things will not just snap back to ‘normal.’”

So where are we as a nation? The sense of common decency in politics is missing; we are no longer attached to various religious denominations that set standards of public thinking and behavior about what is good for all of us as a country; we have a president with supporters who do not respect women, who have no understanding of governmental responsibilities, who lack a standard of public or community commitment for the benefit of all that has dominated this country for two centuries.

Brooks adds, “For a time, we lived off the moral capital of the past. But the election of Trump shows just how desiccated the mainline code has become. A nation guided by that ethic would not have elected a guy who is a daily affront to it, a guy who nakedly loves money, who boasts, who objectifies women, who is incapable of hypocrisy because he acknowledges no standard of propriety other than that which he feels like doing at any given moment.” And he asks where are people going to go for a new standard of decency?

Michael Gerson, a top aide to President George W. Bush as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning and now a columnist for The Washington Post, made a key point: “The president has no discernible political philosophy or strong policy views to betray … He has a genius for fame, which usually involves attention-attracting unpredictability … Any choice he makes is correct by definition, because he has made it.”
The above further begs the question of impeachment or Trump’s unlikely resignation: would we better off with Trump or with Pence?

Impeachable Offenses?
Cass R. Sunstein, legal scholar at Harvard, has a new book, “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” which is reviewed in The New York Review of Books in the Sept. 28, 2017, issue. The issues are complex. For example, impeachment is focused on “abuses committed while in office, not prior crimes,” write reviewers Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg, both well respected scholars. Yet crimes committed while campaigning could count as grounds for impeachment because they are connected to the presidency. “He would be impeachable for any official acts during his presidency resulting from the distortion of the electoral process — such as obstruction of justice or payback to Russia.” Should the above be established, it would be up to the House to proceed to impeachment. If the Democrats regain Congress in 2018, they could decide whether to move ahead with impeachment in 2019 if the Republicans do not act.

Adding to the complications of this issue, Feldman and Weisberg say that in the cases of impeachment of Nixon and Clinton, the proceedings were based on acts while each held office. Should impeachment proceedings begin on Trump, the case would be “based on public corruption, including conflicts of interest and receipt of foreign emoluments,” the reviewers write.

Some possibilities: Trump reversed a 2015 action involving the Clean Water Act that would have “significantly raised water costs” at his golf courses. He has provided free advertising for his hotels by spending a third of his days in office at his own properties — considered an emolument, or payment, since foreign officials stay in his hotels. Feldman and Weisberg comment that “evidence suggests that commercial exchanges with sitting heads of state necessarily reflect the value of political influence. … There is no way to disentangle personal and public interest in these and other instances.” Trump could have avoided such problems had he put his holdings in a blind trust, as past presidents have done.

The reviewers list several other possibilities for impeachment proceedings and point out that Trump, despite the Constitutional grant to presidents for the power of pardon, undercut the Constitution by pardoning Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff had been convicted of criminal contempt for willfully violating a federal court, and Trump’s pardon “… not only signaled his approval of an elected public official openly flouting the Constitution. He thwarted the judiciary’s authority to say what the law is and to enforce its judgments.” With that, he “undercut the very constitutional structure that creates presidential power in the first place.”

So, now we must weigh the difference between Trump’s inability to understand and obey law and constitutional interpretations with the possibility that Pence could work with the GOP Congress and approve legislative action that could be destructive to many Americans. With Trump, we have constant chaos, and now a serious danger of war with North Korea resulting from his U.N. speech denigrating Kim Jong-un. If Pence becomes president, the Senate and House, no longer encumbered with Trump’s foot-in-mouth mishaps, would likely have calmer water on the Right smoothed with waves of scripture to reduce or kill any legislation that protects and takes care of millions of Americans while lowering taxes on the rich.
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Lyle Harris, a former reporter in Washington, D.C., is Journalism Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.

For Further Reading
• Trump Takes Aim at the Press, With a Flamethrower: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/23/business/media/trump-takes-aim-at-the-press-with-a-flamethrower.html
• Getting Trump Out of My Brain: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/08/opinion/getting-trump-out-of-my-brain.html
• Dreamers, Liars and Bad Economics: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/…/dreamers-liars-and-bad-economics.html
• What are Impeachable Offenses?: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/09/28/donald-trump-impeachable-offenses/
• Are We Down to President Pence?: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/21/opinion/trump-united-nations-pence.html

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