Opinion

The Tar Heel who caused Trump’s troubles

President Trump complains a lot about U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, but his real beef should be with William Davie of North Carolina.

Davie was the original whistleblower. He helped make possible the impeachment of a president. However, Trump can’t demand to interview him. Davie died in 1820.

A Revolutionary war cavalry officer, former North Carolina governor and father of the University of North Carolina, Davie was also a North Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Davie didn’t say much for the record in Philadelphia and left before the Constitution was signed, though he supported its ratification. But, Davie, along with another North Carolina delegate, Hugh Williamson, did move that the new nation’s governing document provide a means to impeach the leader of the executive branch.

On June 2, 1787, the Convention approved a motion by Davie and Williamson that the executive “be removable on impeachment and conviction of malpractice or neglect of duty.”

Clark D. Cunningham, a Georgia State University law professor and expert on the documentary history of the Constitution, told me, “North Carolina can take justifiable pride in the documented fact that the principle of presidential impeachment was first introduced at the Constitutional Convention by two leaders of its delegation.”

In a recent op-ed, Cunningham highlighted a famous argument made by Davie later in the Convention about the need for presidential impeachment: “If he be not impeachable whilst in office, he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected. [I] consider this as an essential security for the good behavior of the Executive.”

The conniving for re-election by Presidents Nixon and Trump have proved Davie’s warning prescient.

Cunningham explained to me that the original impeachment provision proposed by Davie disappeared from the final draft of the Constitution in the process of rewriting provisions for electing the president and setting the term of office. In the final weeks of the Convention, after Davie had left to attend to responsibilities back in North Carolina, the delegates borrowed terms from the British and made impeachment based on a president committing “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But the vagueness of that wording presents its own problems.

“Congress would be wise to consider the more clear and sensible language initially proposed by these two eminent leaders from North Carolina to understand the spirit of the impeachment provision,” Cunningham said.

Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina School of Law professor and author of the book “Impeachment: What everyone needs to know,” said Davie introduced the idea that the president should be subject to conviction and removal. But he said the standard he and Williamson proposed for impeachment would have made the United States more of a parliamentary system in which the president could be removed with a vote of no confidence.

Instead Congress must wrestle with what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Gerhardt, who testified before Congress as an expert witness during the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, said the framers understood ”high crimes and misdemeanors” to include “political crimes. Not violations of the law, but still problematic for the president.”

In place of Davie’s clear view of presidential misbehavior as “malpractice and neglect of duty,” we now have a standard that depends heavily on context, Gerhardt said. “Every generation has to work through its understanding of whether or not the thing that has been done rises to the level of an impeachable offense,” he said.

But when the charge against a president is pressuring foreign governments to help his re-election, Gerhardt said the ambiguity falls away. “In the present case we have classic impeachable offenses. This is a no-brainer. It’s not illegal but it is an abuse of power, or one might say, ought to be,” he said. “The critical question is whether there is the political will to impeach him and force him to stand trial in the Senate.”

Doubts and debates about Trump’s offense and his fate will swirl for months. But if you go to downtown Raleigh you can find clarity on a certain street — Davie Street. It leads to impeachment.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com
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