Most of us would think it strange if a teacher charged with sexually molesting his students or a surgeon accused of maiming his patients were allowed unrestricted access to other potential victims while awaiting a jury trial.
So why is a president who stands formally accused of abusing his constitutional authority for personal political gain permitted to exercise that authority with no restrictions whatsoever, even as he faces his own trial before the U.S. Senate?
It's a question that has acquired new urgency in the week since President Donald Trump rang in the new year by authorizing a drone strike that killed Iran's top general, an act of war that Iran answered Tuesday by firing ballistic missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq..
Because the attack came from Iran rather than from some Iraqi militia group in thrall to Tehran, alarmists are calling it a game-changing escalation that demands an even-harsher U.S. response. Even before the missiles were launched, Trump threatened to answer any Iranian retaliation in kind, "perhaps in a disproportionate manner."
But Iran provided Iraq with advance warning of Tuesday's missile attack, allowing both Iraqi and U.S. forces time to move their personnel out of harm's way, and there is evidence Iranian missiles may have been deliberately targeted to minimize human casualties.
Whether an attack that may have been more bark than bite restores a fragile equilibrium, or triggers an increasingly destructive cycle of escalations, depends largely on Trump's next moves.
Diversionary ploy or US best interests?
Did Trump deliberately court the prospect of all-out war merely to distract his constituents from the impeachment articles he faces at home?
Perhaps not. The president has indignantly rejected any insinuation that the assassination of Qasem Soleimani was a diversionary ploy, insisting he ordered the hit only after reviewing "exquisite" intelligence suggesting that Soleimani was poised to launch new terrorist attacks on U.S. assets in the Middle East.
In an Oval Office meeting Tuesday with reporters, Trump said Soleimani “was planning a very big attack and a very bad attack for us and other people, and we stopped him.”
But lawmakers who received no advance notice of the assassination continue to complain that the White House has disclosed no evidence of such an imminent threat, even in classified briefings, and Trump has spent most of his three-year-tenure disparaging the reliability of the intelligence analysts he now credits for spurring his initiative.
Backstory from Nicole Carroll: There is never a more critical time for truth than when lives are at stake
“Between no weapons of mass destruction, no clear and present danger, the Afghanistan papers — there’s plenty to be skeptical about,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told the New York Times.
Which brings us back to Trump's unique credibility burden, and the dearth of resources available to congressional and military leaders worried about the president's motives.
What you lose when you're accused
We're fortunate to live in a country where even those accused of the most heinous crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Even so, the government routinely restricts the liberties of criminal defendants awaiting the judgment of their peers.
Those accused of serious crimes are typically required to surrender their passports, and many must seek the court's permission to travel outside their home county. Defendants charged with financial crimes may see their assets frozen, and those whose professional conduct is at issue may find themselves barred from teaching, selling securities, or practicing medicine while they await trial.
Employers and financial institutions take their own precautions. Police officers, corporate executives and elected officials indicted on felony charges are often suspended, sometimes without pay, until those charges have been resolved. Banks routinely close the accounts of clients who've been indicted.
Impeachment is not a criminal process, and Trump has not been charged with any crime (although he may be more susceptible to indictment after he leaves office). Yet Trump's current circumstances are strikingly similar to those of a defendant who has been accused but not yet tried in court. You needn't believe the president deserves to be removed from office to understand that the prospect of such a verdict, however remote, has dramatically altered his risks and incentives.
Check power of impeached presidents
But though he stands accused of abusing the highest office in the land, Trump faces fewer restrictions than a storefront accountant suspected of cheating his clients. He can still issue executive orders, veto bills adopted by Congress, order the assassination of a foreign leader or put American lives and assets at risk as effortlessly as any president not encumbered by impeachment.
This makes no sense. The 25th Amendment, adopted after the assassination of President John Kennedy, establishes a process by which a president disabled by illness or injury can be temporarily relieved of his duties until those impediments are resolved. Surely the threat of imminent removal could pose as serious an impairment of sound executive judgment.
It's standard operating procedure for corporations to require that CEOs indicted for serious crimes step aside while charges are pending. But allowing the House of Representatives to sideline a president merely by adopting articles of impeachment would radically alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
Even so, wouldn't it make sense to require that any impeached president face conditions on the exercise of his most powerful executive prerogatives? Shouldn't some other executive authority — the president's cabinet, say, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff — be required to sign off on presidential orders that threaten to embroil the nation in war or destabilize financial markets?
I'm not enough of a constitutional authority to guess which mechanism would be most practicable and least disruptive to the legitimate exercise of presidential authority. But surely the meager restraints currently in place are unequal to the dangerous circumstances our country confronts today.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Trump impeachment should mean shorter leash, not acts of war with Iran