Is Impeachment the Right Answer?

The downside of doing something to keep yourself honest is that it might force you to stay honest.

Last June, I anticipated that the Mueller Report would eventually come out, and that we might then have to decide whether to support an impeachment. I also anticipated that partisan pressures would be intense at that point, and that people on both sides would face a strong temptation to shape their ideas about impeachment around the particulars of the evidence Mueller had found: If you were pro-Trump, no amount of wrong-doing would justify impeachment, but if you were anti-Trump, whatever Mueller found would be enough.

Certainly, we have seen enormous flip-flops among politicians who have been around since the Clinton impeachment. (Lindsey Graham is the most egregious example.) But the partisan winds affect all of us, and so I decided I wanted to get my ideas about impeachment written down before I knew precisely what Mueller would find. So I thought things through in the more-or-less abstract and posted “What is impeachment for?” I was trying to come up with an answer that I could stand by whether the target of impeachment would be a Republican or a Democrat. It should be consistent with the Founders’ intentions as expressed in the Constitution, as well as with my intuition about the impeachments in my lifetime. (I thought the Nixon impeachment was justified but the Clinton impeachment wasn’t.)

My standards for impeachment. Here’s what I came up with:

The Founders believed that any legitimate sovereignty had to come from the People, but they understood that the People would make mistakes. It was inevitable that sooner or later the United States would elect a bad president — a demagogue who was unwise, uninformed, and temperamentally unfit for the job.

It’s clear what they saw as the primary remedy for a bad president: Wait for his term to end and elect somebody else. (In the meantime, the other branches of government should use their checks and balances to minimize the harm he could do.) … Impeachment is in the Constitution for those rare cases where the country just can’t wait. … A legitimate impeachment case needs to argue that the Republic is in danger. There must be some reason why waiting for the next election either won’t work or isn’t good enough.

That led me to four situations that merit impeachment:

  1. The president is not loyal to the People of the United States.
  2. The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process.
  3. The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).
  4. Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment.

So if Mueller had found that Trump was conspiring with Putin, that would be a slam-dunk example of (1). But that’s not what he found. Instead, he assembled evidence of obstruction of justice, which I find convincing. So I believe that the President of the United States is a criminal.

However, back in June I anticipated this situation too:

The offense Mueller is most likely to find is obstruction of justice. The question I would have at that point is whether the obstruction succeeded. (Firing Comey, for example, may have been intended to derail the Russia investigation, but it obviously didn’t.) If Mueller’s conclusion is that Trump’s obstruction prevents us from knowing whether he was part of a treasonous conspiracy, then I would want to impeach him for that. But if Mueller did in fact get to the bottom of the Russia affair, then the impeachment decision should be based on the answer to that question.

The only loophole I can picture in that is if you hold Trump responsible for Paul Manafort’s non-cooperation, and believe that a cooperating Manafort would have revealed a treasonous conspiracy. That’s not impossible, but it seems like a stretch at this point.

Is the Republic in danger, and if so, from what? I won’t pretend that I wasn’t frightened by what I read in Mueller’s report. In one example after another, Trump displayed an attitude of lawlessness; he wanted what he wanted, and if someone told him it was illegal, he’d ask someone else to do it. (We’re getting similar reports about his immigration policy. He is already ignoring our laws defining the asylum process, and his rhetoric is preparing his cult of followers for worse abuses — for example, when he refers to laws he doesn’t like as “Democrat laws“, as if that invalidates them.) I don’t think we’ve ever had a president with such a cavalier disregard of his prime constitutional duty: to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

The president’s refusal to be interviewed by Mueller, and the answers he did give to written questions (Appendix C of the report), also show a frightening level of disrespect. If Trump really has so little memory of what he has done and who he has talked to, then the Vice President should invoke the 25th Amendment on the grounds of senile dementia.  More likely, though, he just sees “I don’t remember” as a lie no one can catch you in.

In 2016, the 46% of the voters who voted for Trump, and so allowed the Electoral College to install him in office, clearly made precisely the kind of mistake that the Founders foresaw. Elections have consequences, and so our Republic is suffering for that lack of wisdom. We have already lost many of the norms that protect us from authoritarianism; for example: the independence of the Justice Department, the expectation that a president would be shamed if caught in a lie, and the expectation that a president would not profit from dealing from foreign countries (and would show us his finances so that we can check).

If the House doesn’t impeach Trump and the Senate remove him from office, what is the remedy?

In part, we’ve been living it for two years now: checks and balances need to limit the damage Trump does until the voters can repudiate him. Other government officials have repeatedly refused to carry out some of Trump’s illegal orders, and judges have stood in the way of others. Congress has refused to let him pay Putin back by relaxing sanctions. The voters elected a Democratic House that can block many of his worst ideas, and can expose wrongdoing to the public.

In some ways, though, the checks and balances are failing. It is within Congress’ power to enforce the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution more rigorously, but it hasn’t done so. Congress could have defended its own power by overriding Trump’s veto of the resolution rescinding his state of emergency, but it didn’t. But these are failures of the same people who would have to remove Trump from office in impeachment. If you can get two-thirds of the Senate to see the problem and take action, then arguably you don’t need to remove Trump from office.

But that points to the real problem: Congress doesn’t have a supermajority willing to defend the Republic against a bad president. And behind that is another problem: While polls consistently show that Trump is unpopular, the public has not decisively rejected him in the way that, say, they rejected Richard Nixon once the details of the Watergate scandal became clear.

That’s the real source of danger: About 40% of the public doesn’t believe in the American system of government any more. They are fine with a lawless, dishonest president, as long as they believe he’s on their side.

A thought experiment. How would you feel about impeachment if Trump were already a pariah, if Congress routinely overrode his vetoes, and if candidates were lining up to challenge him not just on the Democratic side, but on the Republican side also? If you were confident that he faced a landslide loss in 2020, and that Republicans might anticipate that and not renominate him — would you feel better about waiting for his term to end?

I would. In large part, my urge to impeach is driven by my fear that the electorate can’t be trusted to repudiate Trump.

But of course, as long as that’s true, the Senate will never remove him from office. If the voters won’t defend the Republic, nobody else will either.

Hazards of not impeaching. In large part, Democrats are facing now the kind of problem that Republicans faced during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal: What can we do with our moral outrage? Republicans read the Starr Report in 1998 (unlike Mueller, Starr timed his report for maximum political effect), were outraged at the thought of extra-marital oral sex in the Oval Office, and felt: “This can’t stand. We have to do something.” [1]

The danger of doing nothing is that it creates the impression that Trump did nothing wrong. “If this were serious,” his supporters will say, “you’d be trying to impeach him.” It also immunizes him against further revelations that may come out of the investigations that Mueller spun off. It encourages him to take even more lawless actions, and may convince his subordinates that it would be no big deal to go along with him.

The politics. Some leading Democrats are taking the position that impeachment should be off the table because it’s not the best political move: Making Trump the center of the 2020 campaign plays into his hand. Instead, 2020 should be about health care, climate change, income inequality, and voting rights.

That’s true up to a point. Many of the voters we need to turn out aren’t concerned about “process issues” like whether the president respects the law. They want to know what each party plans to do for them, and what the Democrats plan has far more appeal than what Trump plans. (Most of those voters don’t really care about stopping migrant caravans either.)

Democrats shouldn’t get so caught up in opposing Trump that they lose sight of all other values. But in addition to pocketbook issues, Democrats need to be the party of honesty and good government. The very idea that Trump is a threat to American democracy, but that we’ll ignore it because that issue isn’t polling well for us right now — it undermines everything else. Some things are too important to calculate over, and this is one of them. The world where principles are just for show, and really everybody does whatever works to their advantage — that’s Trump’s world. If we move there, we lose.

Keeping the pressure on. The trick will be to find a middle way: to continue calling Trump’s lawlessness to public attention, while arguing that political repudiation is the voters’ job, and that indictment after he leaves office is a sufficient legal response. The issues raised by the Mueller report need to stay in the spotlight. For now, congressional hearings should be able to serve that purpose: Mueller and Barr need to testify in public, certainly, and probably a number of the administration officials who were told to break the law, like Don McGahn.  Lawlessness in other areas, like border enforcement, needs to be pulled into the theme.

But there’s no reason why these sorts of hearings have to eclipse all other issues. The House has already passed a comprehensive voting-rights bill. It can pass bills to define the rest of a positive agenda.

[1] Our outrage, I think, is far more justified, for two reasons: The obstruction case against Trump is far stronger than the one against Clinton, and it involves misuse of his presidential powers rather than just personal vices.

When I listened to the Senate hearing of the Clinton impeachment, I was amazed by how weak the obstruction case was: Republican prosecutors told a plausible story of obstruction — Clinton induced Monica Lewinsky to lie in a civil deposition by convincing Vernon Jordan to get her a good job at Revlon — but beyond showing that all the people who needed to conspire had opportunity to communicate with each other, they had no evidence.  The conspiracy was denied by everyone supposedly involved, including people who had nothing to gain by lying, like Lewinsky (who had immunity) and the folks at Revlon.

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  • Kathryn B Campbell  On April 22, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    I would like to recommend a book to guide everyone’s thinking on the impeachment process: “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Nixon Impeachment— Roadmap for the Next One” by Howard Fields. The book was first published post-Watergate; Fields spent a year covering the story as a UPI reporter early in a 35-year career in Washington, DC. He left UPI to become a freelancer, working as a Washington reporter/writer/ editor/stringer/bureau chief for several newspapers, magazines, newsletters and Web sites. Available on Amazon.

  • Kenneth  On April 22, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    At this point, I believe 1, 2, and 3 are all true, but that the biggest danger to the Republic is the Republican Party’s subservience to Trump (or whoever Putinlobbyistsreligious demagogues). And therefore, as you have said, any part of Congress controlled by Republicans has abdicated its responsibilities (or even actively stymied any attempt to resist lawlessness), and the only recourse is to remove them from office. I just hope people turn out to resist that 40% of our fellow citizens.

    • Bill  On April 22, 2019 at 5:59 pm

      Ken…I’m with you. But let’s do more than hope. Let’s engage at least two of our republican voting friends/acquaintances and find a way to bring them to the other side. Hard, dangerous and sometimes futile work, but worth the effort.

      • Anonymous  On April 24, 2019 at 9:31 pm

        Yes! Work with your Republican friends/acquaintances to help get them to support impeachment. Or focus more broadly on a specific red state or red district. But please don’t stop with just hoping.

  • KONVEKSI TAS  On April 22, 2019 at 11:08 pm

    I would like to recommend a book to guide everyone’s thinking on the impeachment process: “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Nixon Impeachment— Roadmap for the Next One” by Howard Fields. The book was first published post-Watergate; Fields spent a year covering the story as a UPI reporter early in a 35-year career in Washington, DC. He left UPI to become a freelancer, right


  • By Non-cooperation | The Weekly Sift on April 22, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Yes, Obstruction” and “Is Impeachment the Right Answer?“. […]

  • […] week I re-examined my prior standards and determined that removing Trump from office was a job for the voters, not for the impeachment […]

  • By Separation of Powers | The Weekly Sift on April 29, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    […] This week Trump announced his intention to fight “all the subpoenas“. That’s an authoritarian position that, if he gets away with it, will fundamentally change our constitutional system. That was enough to change the position against impeachment that I announced last week. […]

  • By Two Paths to Impeachment | The Weekly Sift on May 27, 2019 at 10:28 am

    […] [6] Defending the status of Congress was what pushed me over to the impeachment camp a week after writing that I didn’t think the Mueller Report justified it. […]

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