The push to impeach President Donald Trump now has some competition from a campaign with unknown financial backers that wants to censure the president instead.
On Wednesday, a group that opposes Trump took out a full-page advertisement in the major news section of the New York Times to publicize a petition listing 34 actions by the president that they believe warrant censure by Congress.
The 34 points range from the firing of former FBI Director James Comey to "encouraging police discrimination," and even "publishing false and inflammatory right-wing British videos"—a reference to the president retweeting videos on Twitter.
"While some of Trump's actions may be sufficient to support his impeachment, we believe that at a minimum they require his immediate censure by Congress," the group wrote.
Censure is a formal process by which both houses of Congress vote to formally condemn an individual for conduct construed to be unbecoming. Censure is not the same as impeachment, which occurs when legislative bodies vote to bring direct charges of misconduct against an individual. Neither impeachment nor censure results in the immediate removal from office, though individuals who are impeached are eligible to be removed upon conviction of the crimes they are charged with. Individuals who are censured by Congress are not eligible to be removed from office.
The organization behind the petition is shrouded in mystery. The campaign's website does not list an address, information about the group's leadership, or the financiers who paid for the New York Times ad. It is also unclear why the ad was taken out on Wednesday, almost six months after the petition first appeared in August 2017.
The New York Times would not disclose who placed the ad or the exact price that was paid, but, according to the paper's advertising office, a one-day, full page, black and white display in the major news section would run upwards of $83,000. It is likely the money used to pay for the advertisement came from a private source, as the group's website is not set up to accept donations.
According to the American Prospect and HuffPost, the campaign seems to be the "brainchild" of Jules Bernstein, a Washington, D.C.-based labor lawyer. Bernstein has previously served in high-level positions with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Laborers International Union of North America. He was also on the executive committee of the Democratic Socialists of America in the 1980s.
During the 2016 election cycle, Bernstein & Lipsett, the self-described "mom and pop" labor law firm that Bernstein runs with his wife, donated over $100,000 to various Democratic candidates and organizations affiliated with the Democratic Party.
"[The petition] is a simple and easy way for people to be heard and fight back," Bernstein told HuffPost in August. "It would serve to combat Trump's normalization, let Congress know how people feel, and remind the press and public of all the terrible things he's done."
Bernstein was also the first person to post the petition on change.org, where it has lived for the past six months, accumulating more than 58,000 signatures.
Last August, Bernstein, along with Michael Cooper, former president of the New York City Bar Association, wrote an editorial for a local newspaper in Martha's Vineyard, where Bernstein has a second home, in which they argued the merits of censuring Trump.
"Some have said that censure is merely a ‘slap on the wrist,' and that impeachment is the only appropriate remedy for the wrongdoing of President Trump," they wrote. "To this we respond that while there may be several additional remedies, at the moment petitioning for censure provides an immediate, constitutionally protected means of public condemnation and reproach of President Trump."
Neither Bernstein nor Cooper responded to interview requests for this story.
The same publications that called Bernstein the brains behind the censure campaign also reported that Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration from 2005 to 2007, is an "initiator" of the petition. When asked about his participation, Painter denied any involvement in drafting the document's language, but he did say he was "one of the first signatories." Painter also said that he had been in communication with the drafter from the beginning, offering "suggestions from time to time."
Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, says that he sees the petition "as a middle ground between doing nothing and starting impeachment proceedings." He points to a similar movement, advocated by the founders of MoveOn.org, during the height of the Lewinsky Scandal that attempted to censure President Bill Clinton rather than impeach him.
Painter has been a vocal supporter of the campaign, even urging his Twitter followers to "sign and tweet."
Sign and Tweet. Petition to The Congress of the United States Requesting that President Trump be Censured https://t.co/GLkToTsmv3
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) July 27, 2017
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) August 12, 2017
At a minimum.
— Richard W. Painter (@RWPUSA) August 31, 2017
Painter, a registered Republican, has been highly critical of the Trump administration in the past. Through his role as vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a left-wing legal advocacy group, Painter was involved in bringing a lawsuit against the president for alleged violations of the Emoluments Clause, a constitutional provision that prohibits U.S. elected officials from accepting gifts and payments from foreign governments. The lawsuit was filed three days after Trump's inauguration as president.
CREW, a D.C.-based government watchdog group, argued, on the basis of a strict interpretation of the Emoluments Clause, that Trump violated the Constitution by accepting payment from foreign governments for the use of hotels and office space owned and operated by the Trump Organization.
Before taking office, Trump said that he would put his assets in a revocable trust and turn over the management of his businesses to his children. After the suit was filed, the president's lawyer announced that the Trump Organization would transfer any funds paid by a foreign government to the U.S. Treasury.
In December, a federal judged dismissed the case, ruling that CREW lacked the standing to bring such a suit and that final authority to decide whether Trump violated the clause rested with Congress.
The petition lists violating the Emoluments Clause as its fifth reason for censure.
The petition is unconnected to a resolution that Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) and Cedric Richmond (La.) introduced in the House to censure Trump over his alleged comments referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as "s—hole countries." That resolution has more than 130 House Democrat cosponsors.
The movement to censure Trump appears to be unrelated to a wider effort by billionaire Tom Steyer to impeach the president. Steyer, a California environmentalist and Democratic mega-donor, announced last year that he would spend $20 million of his own fortune on an extensive media campaign to convince Congress to file articles of impeachment.
Perhaps the most telling difference between the petition for censure and the movement for impeachment is that, of the 34 actions laid out in the petition, 33 are largely subjective, depending on one's political leanings. Item 19 on the list, for example, reads: "Ending ACA [Affordable Care Act] subsidies in the billions by Executive Order which will deprive low income citizens of desperately needed health care."
Only one of the 34 actions could potentially warrant a conviction in a court of law, rather than a court of public opinion: the potential violation of the Emoluments Clause. As noted above, however, a federal judge shot down this argument last month.