Impeachment: On second thought …

Just as I was turning against impeachment, Trump changed my mind.

Last week I re-examined my prior standards and determined that removing Trump from office was a job for the voters, not for the impeachment process. That judgment went against my inclinations, but my purpose in writing down general standards last summer (long before I knew what the Mueller investigation would find) had been precisely that: to keep me from warping my standards to match the facts available.

The logic behind my conclusion was that impeachment needs to be a forward-looking process, not a backward-looking one. (I hadn’t put it that concisely until just now, but that really is the gist of it.) When presidents have done bad things, most of the time the right solution is to wait for the term to expire and elect somebody else, then prosecute the ex-president for any crimes. Impeachment shouldn’t be a form of punishment, but rather a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. You impeach not because a president is guilty, but because leaving him or her in office is dangerous.

That’s why treason and bribery are the crimes explicitly mentioned in the Constitution: If the president is under the control of some foreign power or wealthy paymaster, that’s dangerous. The country can’t wait for the next election, not because of what the president has done, but because of what the president might do between now and then.

As you might imagine, my model didn’t look kindly on the Clinton impeachment. I understand why some people would be outraged or embarrassed by the sexual revelations in the Starr Report, and might have wanted to punish Clinton in some way. But by no stretch of the imagination was it dangerous to leave him in office, and in fact the country did just fine after the Senate failed to remove him.

From that point of view, Mueller’s failure to find evidence of Trump conspiring with Putin was the key point. Leaving in power a president who was beholden to a foreign dictator would be precisely the kind of situation that impeachment is meant for. Mueller did find considerable evidence of Trump obstructing justice, and I hope both that the voters will take that seriously and that he’ll be prosecuted for it after he leaves office. But it’s not the same kind of emergency.

That said, I don’t think the Mueller Report is the final word on Trump’s culpability. I think we still need to know whether he is being financially influenced by Moscow, Saudi Arabia, China, or private interests in the US. And with regard to the other scandals of the administration, from Stormy Daniels to the widespread corruption in the cabinet to Jared’s clearance, Congress should be acting to collect information for the 2020 voters, who, if they are doing their duty by our founding principles, will resounding kick Trump out of office. (If they don’t, we’ve got bigger problems that just a bad president.)

So it’s very disturbing that Trump is once again upping the stakes: The Washington Post’s Steve Vladeck summarizes:

Trump, characteristically, seems to be taking the sort of fight most of his predecessors have had with the legislative branch and making the stakes far greater — and the possible damage far worse — than ever before.

The administration’s emerging position appears to be that Congress does not really have the power to investigate the president, at least not when one chamber is controlled by his political adversaries, even if whatever information it seeks might eventually be used in an impeachment proceeding. That’s a deeply disturbing argument, and one that, if successful, would tilt the separation of powers, perhaps irrevocably, toward the executive branch.

And the NYT’s Charlie Savage went into detail:

On Wednesday, the Justice Department said a civil rights division official, John Gore, would defy a subpoena to testify on Thursday about its addition of a citizenship question to the census. This week, White House lawyers indicated that they would tell the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II and other former officials not to comply with subpoenas for their testimony, a person familiar with the legal strategy said.

Mr. Trump has also sued to block a congressional subpoena of his accounting firm, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin missed a deadline to turn over Mr. Trump’s tax returns to lawmakers and the former head of White House personnel security, Carl Kline, ignored a subpoena ordering him to appear for a deposition about overriding recommendations to deny security clearances.

Together, the events of the week made clear that Mr. Trump has adopted a strategy of unabashed resistance to oversight efforts by the House — reveling in abandoning even the pretense of trying to negotiate accommodations and compromise with the institution controlled by his political opponents.

“The president is attempting to repeal a congressional power of oversight that goes back to the administration of George Washington,” said Charles Tiefer, a former longtime House lawyer who is now a University of Baltimore law professor. He said “the comprehensiveness and intensity of this presidential stonewalling” exceeded anything he had seen in his 40-year career.

In other words, he wants to stop Congress from collecting information that would help the voters make their judgment about him and his administration, or that could reveal additional avenues for impeachment. And that changes the game: If the president interferes in this way, he’s preventing not just Congress from doing its job, but the voters as well. If that’s allowed, then the idea that removing Trump is the voters’ job falls apart — and once again, impeachment becomes necessary.

That thought sent me back to look at “What is impeachment for?” again. My fourth legitimate reason for impeachment is:

Congress has no other way to protect itself or the judiciary from presidential encroachment. This is not explicitly stated anywhere in the Constitution, but constitutional government doesn’t work otherwise. Congress necessarily relies on the executive branch to carry out the laws it passes. Presidents famously find loopholes that allow them to do things they want and avoid doing things they don’t want. But if a president ignores clear laws or disobeys direct court orders, Congress has to have some way to preserve the powers of the legislative and judicial branches of government. Waiting for the next election isn’t good enough, because (once the pattern is established) the next president might usurp power in the same way. Impeachment is the ultimate arrow in Congress’ quiver.

That’s the situation we seem to be in at this moment. If Trump won’t submit to the same level of congressional oversight that all previous administrations have allowed, that’s reason to impeach.

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  • Sebastian Iragui  On April 29, 2019 at 1:10 pm

    All of this supposes an impeachment procedure would lead somewhere — and somewhere healthy. But Trump (enabled by the GOP) has America over a barrel. First of all, a conviction in the Senate is a pipe dream: we’ve seen how they locked elbows for Kavanaugh, for example. Secondly, if Trump really did feel threatened, there’s no telling what chaos he would unleash. We’ve seen how little power moral or institutional norms have over him, and he has already hinted at how he counts on forces like “the second amendment people” to save him from a “witch hunt”. I reluctantly support Pelosi on this one.

    • GJacq726  On April 29, 2019 at 1:51 pm

      Agreed. McConnell and the GOP are a huge part of the problem. They are who teed his ability to win office in the first place in my view. It’s up to the House to expose the bs to the public.

      It strikes me how much these actions wreak off mafia characteristics.

  • Christine Ennis  On April 29, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    I like your way of thinking on this, but I have to agree with Sebastian and GJacq. My worry about impeachment is that when it fails in the Senate, it could backfire and lead to the reelection of Trump. That would be the greatest harm. Sad that we’re choosing between two terrible outcomes, and we have to be this twisted in our thinking. Now, if things change and it becomes clear that the Republicans in the Senate will support America over Trump, I would of course gladly change my position on this.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On April 29, 2019 at 5:00 pm

      The other possibility is that impeachment proceedings would expose many of Trump’s crimes to the public, turning even more people against him. Many people voted for Trump out of a desire for something different; at least some of these would view a Democratic challenger (other than Joe Biden) as an alternative to a severely compromised and ineffective Trump.

    • jh  On May 1, 2019 at 11:51 am

      And that’s why the Democrats need to learn from the Republicans. Hillary Clinton was innocent of Benghazi. She lies less frequently than Trump. She never sold Uranium as conservatives suggest. And yet, the public perception of Hillary Clinton is one that has been crafted by the conservatives — a power hungry corrupt woman.

      This is what Democrats need to push as well. For example – I routinely push a message that conservatives aren’t real Americans. (After all, they did that for well over 20 years to the liberals.) I routinely just say “Yeah.. But conservatives are such liars….” It’s all about flinging mud and telling that silly moderate middle what to think. It’s basically marketing 101.

      Never ever show any respect for conservatives. Be very obvious about your disdain. When a conservative does something, just sigh and say “Well, what did you expect”. And of course, liberals need to start pushing the blue state money is funding red states and why are conservatives such lazy takers? It’s time for liberals to go “I don’t want my money wasted so why is say NJ tax dollars going to save some lazy conservative in Utah?” What exactly has Utah given us? Get the NJ citizens angry and push the lazy conservative messaging… which is true isn’t it ? Without blue state dollars, could red states survive? I doubt it. What happens when blue states go “We should all be self-reliant. Why is there a national FEMA program? Shouldn’t each state stand on it’s own? ” Meanwhile, we just have to wait for tornado and hurricane season. California can afford it’s FEMA if it doesn’t have to subsidize lazy red states. And we need vicious street fighters who directly call out the republicans and attack them viciously.

      Conservatives need to be controlled. They are good slaves and followers. So liberals need to posture and behave like “alphas” and the conservatives will fall into place. That means attacking their conservative leaders and saying “Oh… you preach about self reliance but why are you stealing my money?” Why are you pushing your garbage values on me? Conservatives don’t think like liberals. It’s all about emotions with them so cheap slogans will work. Democrats have to stop being that ivory tower “But the evidence” nonsense. They just have to lie and push emotional buttons on the conservative animals. Democrats and liberals need to push conservative’s amygdala’s and trigger that flight or fight irrational behavior and stop going “But this is good for you…” bs. Let the conservative die. Let the conservative suffer. And say “Well, you did make your bed. What did you expect? Why should I give you mercy when you didn’t give any mercy towards others?”

      I’ve never been for an impeachment. Pence is worse. I’d rather have that monkey in the White House than Pence. And I’d rather use Trump as a marketing device to demonize all conservatives. After all, conservatives like to rape and murder children so why would anyone want a conservative near them?

  • Mark Stanley  On April 29, 2019 at 3:40 pm

    Worse that just the re-election of Trump would be the damage a failed impeachment process would do to congress. That is to say: if you’re going down this road, you’d better be certain of where it leads. If they are successful in the House and unsuccessful in the Senate, Trump wins. He would use that as the basis for re-election, and would likely win. Those responsible for the deed (McConnell et al) would also be re-elected, and those in the House that started this would be voted out. So how to do this and be successful? It seems that this can’t be JUST and impeachment of Trump; it also has to be an impeachment of the base (McConnell et al) that has enabled him all along. That means not only going after Trump, but playing offense in how the story is told so that the Senate is forced to support impeachment on a personal level or risk losing their seat. They have to be held to account and forced to do their job. I don’t know how you do that successfully, and until I do, I’m with Pelosi. But somehow the light has to shine on these cockroaches if we’re ever going to root them out.

  • Kathryn Rohde  On April 29, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    You could start impeachment hearings and wait to vote it out of committee until public opinion shifts to where there would be a cost for failing to convict.

  • Kaci  On April 30, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    I think if the Senate wouldn’t convict, it would be worthwhile for the voters to have that on the record with all the information about reasons to impeach also publicly available.

  • Dale Moses  On May 1, 2019 at 2:51 am

    Mueller found evidence of collusion. Just not enough to prove conspiracy(which is potentially a dumb standard for indictment) beyond a reasonable doubt. It certainly found evidence of him being compromised.

  • Paul  On May 3, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    How do we get the Trump base to see that? There are a lot of senators whose bread is buttered by Trump supporters. I don’t doubt they’re even wary of being shot at were they to vote guilty.

    I think they are basically confederates (thanks to you for awakening me to that). How do we show them that Trump is betraying sacred tradition? I suppose they don’t even care about sacred political traditions of the USA.

    • Anonymous  On May 4, 2019 at 12:00 pm

      Unfortunately, I think that many Trump supporters get their news from Fox and conservative talk radio. Countering that will be difficult, because many things just don’t get reported.

      For example, immigrant’s without proper work papers working at Trump’s properties. I doubt that got reported on Fox. Some of his supporters might not like it, but they don’t even know that it happened.

      These are the states that have at least one Republican senator:
      AK, AL, AR, AZ, CO, FL, GA, IA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, ME, MO, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, OH, OK, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, WI, WV, WY

      Those are the states that need to be targeted in order for impeachment to result in removal. Senators from those states care MUCH more about what people think if those people live in their state. If you live in one of them, make noise. If you don’t, adopt one and help the people who live there to make noise.

      And “betraying sacred tradition” might or might not be the thing to make noise about. It depends on why people support him. Maybe the noise should be about something else.


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

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Charity Liberalism and Justice Liberalism” and “Impeachment: On second thought …“. […]

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

    […] 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 […]

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