WASHINGTON (CN) — As a self-professed son of the segregated South who has spent a lifetime — and eight terms in Congress — rejecting discrimination, Representative Al Green is a man for whom words have immense power.
Green is careful when he speaks, and rarely begins sentences with “I,” advice heeded from his mother on the dangers of pride, he said in interview with Courthouse News.
Sitting near a luminous window in the opulent Ernest S. Petinaud dining room in the U.S. Capitol — a space named for a beloved Jamaica-born maître d’ who earned his citizenship after serving lawmakers during and after segregation — Green recalled his firsthand experiences with racism: from the horror of having a cross burned on his lawn decades ago to death threats he received when calling for Trump’s impeachment.
A Democrat representing the 9th District of Texas — where black and Hispanic voters make up more than two-thirds of the population — Green started the calls for Trump’s impeachment back in December 2017, making him the first member of Congress to do so.
Green said the fundamental aspect of American jurisprudence, or philosophy of law, was founded on the belief that no one is above it.
“Well, a good many of my constituents are of the opinion that no one is above the law,” Green said. “Except for the president and maybe, other powerful people who can find ways to circumvent justice because of who they know. And the justice system and our system of jurisprudence is not supposed to be based on who you know, but rather what you have done.”
Observing Trump in the weeks since his Senate acquittal on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges, however, Green said this adage on accountability no longer seems applicable to the president.
From the retaliatory firing of star impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman to sparring with Attorney General William Barr over judicial oversight, Trump has increasingly flexed his powers to intervene at will in matters of law and order — with Congress seemingly powerless to stop him.
“If there are no guardrails, then we have a president who can do almost anything he chooses — and do it with immunity or impunity,” Green said. “So, it went beyond just the trial not being a real trial, where you have witnesses and other evidence presented. It went beyond that.”
The First Calls to Impeach
In December 2017, Trump had not yet marked one year in office when Green first called for articles of impeachment, focusing not on statutory crimes but rather what Green deemed high misdemeanors disgracing the office Trump holds.
That measure quoted the president’s “very fine people” comment in the aftermath of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, among other remarks termed as hate speech.
When it failed 58-364, Green tried again one month later, this time holding up Trump’s reported denigration of Haiti, El Salvador and several African nations as “shithole countries.”
This resolution died 66-335.
Green hit critical mass with his third and final measure in July 2019, with 95 Democrats signing on after Trump said four freshman congresswomen — Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley — should “go back” to their countries.
Each of his impeachment resolutions revolved around Trump’s verbiage, but the congressman insists his true aim was the thin line between the president’s Twitter posts and executive orders.
“The tweets are policies. So, when he talks about trans in the military, that tweet, well, that’s policy,” Green said. “That’s bigotry and policy.”
Two Tiers and ‘a Very Clear Understanding’
Often pointing to his undertaking of criminal-justice reform — achievements magnified by the involvement of celebrities like Kanye and Kim Kardashian West — Trump predicts that the black vote for him this November will be “historic.”
As the political science department chair at the historically black Howard University sees it, however, voters of color are shrewd enough to stack such rhetoric against their experience with what has long been a two-tiered system of justice hinging on race, education and socioeconomic status.
“Black people have a very clear understanding of this president, and the acquittal vote didn’t matter so much,” professor Ravi Perry said in an interview.
Whether it was former leader of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke’s endorsement in 2016 or housing discrimination claims filed against Trump in the 1970s, Perry said black voters know that fair representation is often a catch-22.
“They know progress is happening, but they also know so much more is happening,” Perry said. “It’s the paradox of having to choose to participate in a system that they know was not meant to include them.”
Green, who was elected to Congress after 26 years as a Harris County justice of the peace, recalled a case he presided over involving a white defendant who was worried he would not receive a fair trial in a court where all the jurors in the case were black, as was Green and the prosecution.
Green said he instructed the bailiff to find “additional persons for that panel of different hues, different ethnicities.”
“Then we put all the names in a hat and then shuffled and reshuffled the jury so that he would have people in the jury pool who looked like him,” Green said.
Green pointed out that the law did not always require such maneuvering. It was not until the Supreme Court ruled in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky that a “prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge in a criminal case — the dismissal of jurors without reason — cannot be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race.”
At Trump’s Senate trial, where the Republican majority barred impeachment managers from submitting new evidence or testimony from key witnesses, the president won acquittal by a majority of his peers. According to a 2020 profile from Congressional Research Service, the 116th Congress has a record number of black members at 10.4%. The Senate meanwhile is 93% white.
Green explained that the inequities that Trump’s acquittal laid bare could underline greater questions around the concept of justice for all for voters.
“People will remind you: you’re not going to be fair to me, so why should I be concerned about who or what you’re looking for in the community? … Why would I help you with an investigation? You’re not going to be fair to a person — I mean that’s the mentality,” Green said.
In 2016, Trump courted black voters by asking: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Exit polls from that election put black support for Trump at 8%. According to Gallup, those numbers have held steady.
Though the political action committee BlackPAC also reported disapproval of Trump in a poll last week, it found that the black community is also dissatisfied with the Democratic Party.
Green, who was re-elected Tuesday, said he “never came to Congress to impeach a president.”
Instead, his focus is on passing anti-discrimination legislation like the Housing Fairness Act of 2019, which cleared a key hurdle last week.
He said resetting the congressional bar of justice and applying it to belligerent rhetoric unfitting of presidential office might be cause to impeach a second time.
Then, there are still questions from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election that Green says remain “unaddressed.”
In Green’s view, the Justice Department made its decision long before the Mueller probe that if impeachable acts were found, charges would never be brought due to guidelines preventing a sitting president’s indictment.
Those are the “protocols,” Green said.
But there are many days left until November and lawmakers and voters, especially those voters who represent the very base that drives the opposition to Trump’s second term, have much to consider.
“I think as we review these things, if the president has committed an impeachable act, then we have to impeach him — he easily could be the first president impeached twice,” Green said. “But after this election, I think people may refocus on some of these things that are pretty important, that are unfinished business.”