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Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
No U.S. president, or former president, has ever been convicted in a Senate impeachment trial. Donald Trump is highly unlikely to break that streak. That’s a principal reason members of Congress started promoting censure as an alternative to impeachment right after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The idea is getting new attention now that Senate Republicans have solidified their opposition to conviction.
Proponents say that compared to impeachment, censure would put a wider and more bipartisan majority of Congress on record in condemnation of Trump’s campaign to overturn the election results and the violence that campaign inspired. It would also avoid the constitutional objections that an impeachment of a former president raises. (Even those of us who believe that Congress has the power to do it generally acknowledge that the constitutional question is tricky.)
But the difference between impeachment and censure under today’s circumstances is small, both practically and politically. Let’s start with the politics. Nine-tenths of the arguments that Republicans are making against impeachment would apply equally to censure. They’re saying that impeachment is divisive and inflammatory, that it is really an attack on Trump’s voters and not just on him, that it would set a bad precedent because Congress could censure any president for anything. Most Republicans would be saying the same things about censure if it were headed toward a vote.
The worry about setting a bad precedent actually has greater force against censure than against a post-presidential impeachment. Censure can pass by majority vote of both chambers, while the Senate has to muster a two-thirds supermajority to convict in an impeachment trial. That’s one of the reasons censure supporters are pushing for it, after all: It’s easier to see through. But then it is also a reason to worry more about its overuse.
In a debate over censure, Republicans would be making the same defenses of Trump they’re making against impeachment: He was within his rights to make his case about the election, he didn’t explicitly tell anyone to break any laws, he was raising important questions about voting machines. And they’d be giving their fellow Republicans the same political advice: Censure will split the party and alienate much of its base; better to move on. Censure sounds more appealing to Republicans than impeachment right now. As the debate played out, though, it might not get a lot more votes in Congress.
The debates would be similar because an impeachment of an ex-president just is a lot like a censure. It wouldn’t remove a president, because he is already out of office. It wouldn’t by itself strip him of his pension and other benefits. It would merely make it possible for Congress to hold another vote disqualifying him from future office — and whether any resulting disqualification stuck would depend on the reaction of voters and courts.
A censure is even more similar to an impeachment of a former president if it ends the way the current one almost certainly will: with a bipartisan majority of the Senate, but not the necessary two-thirds supermajority, voting to convict. Some people — Trump supporters crowing, and opponents lamenting — would call that outcome a “failed impeachment.” But a failed impeachment would be functionally equivalent to a successful censure: It would put both chambers of Congress on record against presidential misconduct without having any legal effect.
Trump is already the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives twice, and the first president to have a senator of his party vote to convict him. A repudiation of him by a majority of the Senate, including other members of his party, would be another black mark on his presidency, and an indelible one. (Censures, on the other hand, can be reversed, as Andrew Jackson’s was.)
Censuring Trump should not, then, be considered as an alternative to proceeding with an impeachment trial. At this point, impeachment is censure: a rebuke Trump richly deserves.