What’s Next: Censuring the president?

During the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia suggested a different method of holding the president accountable: a censure, or a “formal statement of disapproval.

Sen. Manchin said he felt a “bipartisan majority of this body would vote to censure President Trump,” as opposed to voting to remove him, which would require 67 votes in the Senate. “Censure would allow this body to unite across party lines and as an equal branch of government to formally denounce the president’s actions and hold him accountable,” Sen. Manchin said in his remarks on the Senate floor last Monday

The only president to have been censured is Andrew Jackson, who had the censure expunged in 1837. There is, therefore, no data on how a censure could affect public opinion or Trump’s re-election campaign. The closest thing we have is season 3, episode 10 of “The West Wing,” (1999–2006), titledH. Con-172” (2002).

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) reveals publicly in season 2 that he has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. His failure to disclose this illness earlier leads to an investigation by Congress. In the episode “H. Con-172,” the Congressional Oversight Committee offers to end its investigation of Bartlet’s concealment of his illness in exchange for a joint congressional censure — House Concurrent Resolution 172, or H. Con-172. Bartlet’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) wants to reject the offer. His arguments include the fact that a censure would be a huge blow to Bartlet’s re-election campaign and would also affect many House Democrats in tight races, but Bartlet makes an important point:

PRESIDENT BARTLET: “I was wrong. I was, I was just … I was wrong. Come on, we know that. Lots of times we don’t know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do, and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset, but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. ‘Everybody does it.’ That’s what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone’s to blame so no one’s guilty. I’m to blame. I was wrong.”

Although the idea of Congress censuring a president in his first term does make this 18-year-old episode of television relevant, it’s hard to imagine a less Trump-like response than that of Bartlet, who goes on to accept the House’s censure. Since Senator Manchin’s vote in favor of impeachment, Trump has attacked him on Twitter several times, calling him a puppet in the “Impeachment Hoax.Trump being willing to admit his wrongdoings seems about as likely as an actual censure, which senators from both parties have called “a non-starter,” according to CNN. In “The West Wing,Bartlet is re-elected to a second term despite the MS scandal and his censure. Only time — 263 days, to be precise — will tell how Trump’s many scandals affect his re-election efforts.