Impeachment : Truth, Power and Partisanship

Impeachment : Truth, Power and Partisanship October 6, 2019

“The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of President Andrew Johnson,” Theodore R. Davis, 1868; Public Domain.

The inquiry into whether President Trump should be subject to impeachment raises questions for many of us about the nature of truth and whether truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, albeit of a partisan kind.

The question about the nature of truth reminds me of the trial of Jesus and his conversation with the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, who was stationed in Jerusalem. In no way am I equating or comparing the person of Jesus and the merits of his case with this or that American President facing the threat or determination of impeachment (whether Trump, Clinton, Nixon or Johnson). What I am reflecting upon is how these political proceedings old and new cause us to consider carefully the nature of truth and to determine just how much it matters to us.

“What is truth?” This was the famous or infamous question Pontiac Pilate raised in response to Jesus’ claim made during his trial that those on the side of truth listen to him. Pilate came off as a cynic with this apparently dismissive reply. Perhaps as a politician, Pilate came to the conclusion that truth is ultimately about the will to power and partisanship. Here’s Pilate’s conversation with Jesus:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38; ESV)

In what follows in this biblical account, Pilate claimed that he saw no guilt in Jesus and no basis for capital punishment. However, later, when pressed hard, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified out of fear that Pilate himself would be accused of aiding Jesus—deemed a rival king—who would usurp Caesar’s lordship (John 18:38-19:16).

Pilate was most concerned for his own neck and political survival. How often do we find this to be the case today? The partisan rancor in Washington and the jockeying for power can easily lead our governing officials to lose sight of truth and justice. The same may be true of us. We are all biased. We easily perceive situations in keeping with our prejudices and tribal instincts. In my estimation, such predispositions do not signify that truth is relative or merely an opinion that can be discarded with every charge of fake news. It only means that it takes a great deal of work to process truth claims and make sure that we are not operating by way of the will to power and partisanship.

Take for example the most recent impeachment inquiry. If the impeachment inquiry gains steam and President Trump is eventually found guilty of an impeachable offense in the House of Representatives, it will be very difficult to make it stick once it gets to the Republican-controlled Senate. Interestingly enough, President Clinton was impeached in the Republican-led House in December 1998, but later acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate. Note the following summary:

“What President Clinton did was wrong,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi said. “It is grounds for embarrassment, not for impeachment.” This became the framework for the Democratic defense of Clinton, who was impeached on a largely party-line vote in the Republican-led House and then acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Now if one thinks that it is only Pelosi who has taken different stances on the two Presidents, think again. Lindsey Graham has done the same. Refer here and here. One article puts the two impeachment inquiries into partisan perspective:

Their positions, it seems, aren’t founded so much on their interpretation of existing evidence as they are on party allegiances. It’s worth noting that a similar dynamic was present in 1999: Democrats overwhelmingly stood by Clinton.

What is at stake presently is not only whether the current President of the United States has committed an impeachable offense, which the U.S. Constitution articulates in the following manner“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 4). What is also at stake is whether we can ever move beyond the will to power and partisanship toward mutual understanding and a clear consensus on the matter. What also proves incredibly difficult is the toxic environment in the country as a whole. Besides Pastor Robert Jeffress’ much-discussed, controversial statement (which was expanded upon by President Trump) comparing the wound left by impeaching and removing Trump from office with the wound left by the Civil War, former Republican Senator Jeff Flake has weighed in on just how tense the situation is in our country, and thus the need to proceed with caution. Recently, he wrote:

Compelling arguments will be made on both sides of the impeachment question. With what we now know, the president’s actions warrant impeachment. The Constitution of course does not require it, and although Article II, Section 4 is clear about remedies for abuse of office, I have grave reservations about impeachment. I fear that, given the profound division in the country, an impeachment proceeding at such a toxic moment might actually benefit a president who thrives on chaos. Disunion is the oxygen of this presidency. He is the maestro of a brand of discord that benefits only him and ravages everything else. So although impeachment now seems inevitable, I fear it all the same. I understand others who might have similar reservations. The decision to impeach or not is a difficult one indeed.

Regardless of what one thinks of former Senator Jeff Flake’s fear and desired caution on whether to proceed with impeachment, nonetheless, it is striking that he, Senator Mitt Romney, and Representative Adam Kinzinger have taken serious issue with the President’s conduct in this recent matter. Not only do they risk withering attacks by the President, but also they risk alienating die-hard supporters of the President and party unity.

Such moves and positions taken by Flake, Romney and Kinzinger do not necessarily mean they are correct in their assessments simply because they buck the power base and partisanship. However, they do merit serious consideration in part because they go upstream. It is hard to see how such minority positions benefit Republicans like current office holders Romney and Kinzinger in the present climate, just as when Democrats part company with their party’s power base. We can only hope that all members of our U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate will be able and willing to move beyond the will to power and partisanship in pursuit of the truth regarding Ukraine and whether it is an impeachable offense regardless of the consequences for their careers and their parties. Otherwise, our democratic ideals will become increasingly subject to the cynic’s charge that all truth claims are merely confirmed biases that, if we don’t like them, can be immediately dismissed as fake news.

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