Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
It seems that, for better or worse, Donald Trump is unimpeachable. This is not just because a Republican Congress is so unlikely to impeach a Republican President. It is also because of the constitutional stipulation that the only impeachable offences are "high crimes and misdemeanours."
Admittedly, this very phrase has always puzzled us laymen. The terms seem so oddly paired. "High crimes" suggests very grave offences, "misdemeanours," relatively minor ones. Why would the Constitution pair the two? If "high crimes" are necessary for impeachment, shouldn't they also suffice for it? And even if the President is guilty only of "misdemeanours," if these are flagrant and copious, should not Congress be able to evict him for them?
No doubt there are sound historical reasons, rooted in 18th-century usage, for why the U.S. founders chose the phrase that they did. These lie beyond the scope of this column. I am not a constitutional historian, merely an appalled observer of the current American political scene. But for now at least, whatever the arcane sense of these terms, at most, the second applies to Mr. Trump. Pending the outcome of the Robert Mueller inquiry, there are no high crimes to be ascribed to him, merely a wealth of misdemeanours. Or is it a high crime just to have sunk to a new low?
Constitutionally speaking, perhaps not. Politically speaking, however, Mr. Trump has compromised his presidency beyond recovery. The public-opinion polls confirm this, with their consistently (and unprecedentedly) low approval ratings.
So what if 36 per cent obdurately continue to back Mr. Trump, less because he has improved their prospects than because he shares their prejudices? That's barely a third of the population, and there is little prospect of its rising. If the economic miniboom hasn't persuaded the skeptics, what will? And so what if most of the former Republican Party backs him, having nowhere else to go? It will change its tune soon enough if he becomes a legislative liability and/or disaster looms in the 2018 midterm elections.
The most egregious of Trump loyalists are the large handful of policy wonks. Intellectuals and journalists, they may have their doubts about the man, but stubbornly commend his policies. They point to the current high growth rate of the U.S. economy, or applaud Mr. Trump's reversal of various ill-considered policies of the Obama administration. Often they're tough guys on foreign policy who mistake Mr. Trump for one.
Yet, even conceding many of these claims, in the end they are beside the point.
At best, support for Mr. Trump on policy grounds is penny wise and pound foolish. What a president says matters. Mr. Trump's feckless mouthings so besmirch his policies as to sap whatever plausibility they might otherwise possess. Some intellectuals claim to back him because of the threat of political correctness. But he is God's gift to political correctness. A supposedly conservative white-male President so easily cast as racist, nativist, misogynist and transphobic: That is every campus agitator's dream.
The verdict on Mr. Trump, then, is clear: low crimes and misdemeanours. You just can't expect him to rise to high ones. The result is a White House whose only serious business is damage control. The harm Mr. Trump has inflicted on his administration, on the office of the President, on the Republican Party and on his country and its standing, is incalculable. No lowering of the corporate tax rate or menacing talk in foreign policy can compensate for it. No faithful service by competent and conscientious subordinates such as Mr. Trump's defence team can neutralize it.
His chronically intemperate statements, his tweets, ranging from the inane through the outrageous to the putrid, his ignorance and his celebration of it, his short attention span and his addictions to junk food and to electronic media: All mark him as the least adult of U.S. presidents.
Yes, he is still the President, and in all likelihood Americans, having elected him, are stuck with him until they elect his successor. That's no reason for conservatives to kid themselves about him.