Sixty-four years ago, the U.S. Senate censured the bullying demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin for conduct that "tended to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."
McCarthy lingered in the Senate for 2 1/2 more years, but the censure essentially ended his early-1950s “Red Scare” reign of intimidation and character assassination.
Now President Donald Trump, with his craven performance opposite Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, has brought his office into dishonor and disrepute. In doing so, Trump has presented a gift to congressional Democrats who dread campaigning on impeachment for the midterm elections in the fall. The promise to censure Trump if Democrats retake the House would likely appeal more to voters than vowing to undo the 2016 election through impeachment.
For all the bipartisan condemnation of what has been called the "Helsinki humiliation," censure isn't part of the discussion. It should be.
The Senate will not be a fruitful place to look for it. Timid Senate Republicans remain too frightened of their constituents to sanction their president. Under the most common reading of the rules, censure in the Senate would take 60 votes — a high bar unless special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation turns up five-alarm evidence involving the president.
The House, by contrast, requires only a simple majority to approve a motion of censure. If Democrats take that chamber this fall, they could censure Trump as early as January. He would obviously use it to try to rally his base. But even if the vote were largely symbolic, a resolution officially condemning Trump on national security and other grounds would be worth the trouble.
Censure would provide at least some measure of accountability for Trump, and it would be a repudiation-by-proxy of Putin. Along with strengthened sanctions against Russia, censure would send a strong message to the world that the U.S. president's assault on NATO and capitulation to the Kremlin do not reflect the policy of the full U.S. government.
Last year, a small band of House liberals tried, with little notice, to censure Trump for blaming "both sides" after white supremacists sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. He deserved censure then, but today's grounds are even stronger.
Censure, by either the Senate or the House, is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, and it has no legal force. But its rare use — only two dozen or so times in the nation’s history — makes it an especially stinging reprimand. Among presidents, only Andrew Jackson has been censured (for withholding key documents about the Bank of the United States), though his censure was later expunged. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton was embroiled in a sex scandal involving a White House intern, many Senate Democrats favored voting for censure and moving on. But the Republican-controlled House was hellbent on impeaching him instead. Republicans paid a price for that overreach, as today’s Democrats may well note.
In Trump's case, censure would not be a substitute for impeachment but a possible precursor to it. At a minimum, advocating censure would be a movement-building effort that would bring tone and focus to the amorphous "Check Trump" themes that Democratic candidates will use before the midterms. It would embed Helsinki in the campaign and help keep that ghastly episode fresh even after attention shifts elsewhere.
Some liberals may insist that impeachment must be part of Democratic campaigns in the fall. But most candidates know that moderate voters in flippable states and districts would prefer to see Mueller’s evidence first. Pushing impeachment now — without rock-solid evidence of the “treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors” necessary to win a two-thirds vote for conviction in the Senate — plays right into Trump’s hands.
Pushing censure doesn’t do that. An official reprimand of the president requires no evidence of collusion — beyond the sickening sight of two heads of state colluding on the world stage. Helsinki might become a useful wedge issue for Democrats. When asked what to do about Trump, they can say they favor censure now on national security grounds and want to wait for Mueller’s findings before considering what to do next. That answer would put Republican opponents on the spot. If GOP candidates opposed censure, they would be essentially saying they think the Helsinki humiliation was no big deal.
As Democrats prepare for possible control of one or both houses of Congress, they must develop their long-atrophied parliamentary muscles. That means planning hearings, investigations and bills to fix a multitude of Trump administration abuses. But they shouldn't neglect the power of public shame, even for the most shameless man on the planet.
Jonathan Alter is an MSNBC analyst and columnist for the Daily Beast.