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What does it mean to censure a politician?

As the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump enters a new round of hearings, one idea has been discussed as a way to come out against the president short of impeachment — censure.

Censure is a formal disapproval that can be adopted by one, or both chambers of Congress. Unlike impeachment, censure is not a power provided by the Constitution, said Gregory Magarian, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. The House and Senate have adopted internal rules that allow them to draft and approve a censure resolution, which provides a public record disapproving of an official’s actions. Such a resolution is a rebuke, but does not carry any material punishment like removal from office.

Why are we talking about censure rather than impeachment?

Impeachment and subsequent removal from office are the ultimate penalty lawmakers can place on a president. The Democrat-led House is likely to impeach Trump, but the Republican-led Senate is unlikely to remove him from office. Amid the inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, censure has been discussed among legal experts and lawmakers as an alternative to impeachment. Democrats can go on the record against the president’s actions without facing losing at a Senate trial.

“The inquiry, followed by a resolution on censure based on the inquiry would leave the Democrats in a stronger position than they would be if they sent it over to the Senate and went through a messy four to six-week process,” William Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told PBS NewsHour.

A possible Senate trial, Galston argued, could distract from the Democratic primary and allow Trump to use impeachment to pitch a sympathetic narrative to the public ahead of his reelection bid.

Censure requires a lower investment than impeachment, said Jessica Levinson, a law professor with Loyola Marymount University. It does not require Congress to hold hearings or prove their case to the public. But lawmakers can go on record stating their disapproval.

MORE: Read the full House Democratic report on the impeachment inquiry

Has a president ever by censured by Congress?

A Senate resolution against Andrew Jackson in 1834 provides the “clearest instance of a successful presidential censure,” according to the Congressional Research Service. Lawmakers moved to censure Jackson for withholding documents requested by lawmakers relating to his decision to defund the Second Bank of the United States. More commonly, censure resolutions are adopted by Congress or state legislatures to punish other lawmakers.

When it comes to presidents, censure occupies a murky territory, Magarian told PBS NewsHour. “My gut instinct is that censure is both too powerful and too powerless at the same time,” he said. “On the one hand, as a matter of institutional norms, this is the biggest negative statement a house of congress can make against the president or anybody else. … On the other hand it’s a big fight, presumably, to get a censure done and at the end of the day it may not change anything.”

Still, he said, a censure would be a less arduous process than a Senate trial.

Could a censure against Trump still happen?

Experts appear to be mixed on whether a censure would be useful to Democrats at this stage in the impeachment inquiry.

Galston argues that the most advantageous choice for Democrats would have been to move forward with censure over impeachment from the beginning.

Levinson said that censure makes more sense as a precursor to impeachment. “We’re already at the next step,” Levinson said. Once lawmakers vote on articles on impeachment, “that’s the much more draconian response,” she added.

Lawmakers could still decide to censure Trump as a symbolic condemnation if the Senate acquits him.

MORE: Who’s who in the Trump impeachment inquiry?

How would a censure affect Trump?

Censure does not result in removal from office, or loss in presidential powers. But like impeachment, censure could hurt Trump’s 2020 reelection chances, as well as tarnish his reputation and legacy.

Trump shot down the prospect of censure while speaking to reporters in London. “The Democrats have gone nuts, they’re crazy. And it is very bad for our country,” Trump said.

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