Tag Archives: impeachment

Two Paths to Impeachment

More and more, it looks like impeachment hearings are going to happen eventually. The main question is when, not whether.

The news media is presenting this as an internal struggle among Democrats, with Speaker Pelosi being against impeachment and an increasing portion of her caucus being for it. But I’m reading those tea leaves a little differently: I think Pelosi wants to get to impeachment by a less direct route — appearing less eager, but gathering evidence and building public support in hearings resembling more ordinary Congressional oversight. Her plan, if all goes well, is to arrive in the same place at more-or-less the same time.

Channeling the Speaker. I think her reasoning is correct as far as it goes: While the Democratic base is strongly in favor of impeachment, the party did not run on impeachment when it won its decisive victory in 2018. [1] Pelosi knows that her majority rests on swing districts where voters are not yet convinced that impeachment is necessary.

In Pelosi’s vision (as I channel it), the investigations currently underway in a variety of House committees will eventually produce stunning revelations from subpoenaed documents (like Trump’s tax returns) and riveting public testimony from witnesses (like Robert Mueller and Don McGahn). This will turn public opinion in favor of impeachment, and Democrats can then claim to be following the public rather than leading it somewhere it doesn’t want to go. Conversely, if the public sees the evidence and doesn’t care, a Democratic push to impeach could be a Charge of the Light Brigade — courageous, but ultimately suicidal. [2]

This week, though, Pelosi has barely managed to keep down a revolt in her ranks, from Democrats who want the Judiciary Committee to start impeachment hearings immediately. Their argument is also correct as far as it goes, and Pelosi does not really dispute it: The Mueller Report shows (but does not conclude) that Trump committed obstruction of justice on numerous occasions. [3]

Grounds. More than 900 former federal prosecutors (400 when the linked article was written) have signed a statement including the following:

Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.

The seven obstructions of justice are in addition to a number of other possible offenses, such as violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and the violations of campaign finance law involved in the payoff to Stormy Daniels. [4]

Abuse of power can also be impeachable, even if the laws have not been technically broken. [5] Now that Trump is making a regular practice out of abusing the national-emergency laws to usurp Congress’ constitutional powers, and denying that Congress has any role in overseeing the Executive Branch, impeachment may be the only way for Congress to defend its status as an equal branch of government. [6]

And in spite of the President’s “no collusion” mantra, the Mueller Report did not completely settle that issue either. At least one of Trump’s obstructions may have succeeded in preventing Mueller from getting to the bottom of things: We know that Paul Manafort gave campaign data to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Russian intelligence operative Konstantin Kilimnik, but we don’t know precisely what or why — possibly because Trump’s witness tampering kept Manafort from cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.

Why not now? The impeachment-now argument has two pieces:

  • Regardless of any political calculations, Congress has a constitutional duty to defend the Republic from presidential criminality. Doing nothing doesn’t just leave Trump in office until the voters (we hope) remove him in 2020; it changes the rules for all future presidents.
  • At crucial moments, Congress has a responsibility to lead the public rather than just follow it. So the Democratic House majority shouldn’t just sit tight and hope that the public catches on to the danger of leaving Trump in office. It needs to go to the public and make that case. By leaving open the possibility that it might not proceed to impeachment, the House is signalling to the American people that what Trump has done and continues to do is not that bad.

What has pushed Democrats towards revolt recently has been Trump’s brazen stonewalling of the various House investigations. More and more, he seems to be claiming an absolute supremacy for the presidency, without checks-and-balances from Congress or the courts. [7]

If his effort succeeds, Congress will not be an equal branch of government any more. Republicans who doubt this should try to imagine their own reaction if President Obama had simply denied that Benghazi was any of the Republican Congress’ concern, and refused to let any executive-branch officials testify to congressional committees.

Appeal to the courts. Trump’s resistance underlines a weakness in our constitutional system: Congress has a great deal of power on paper, but using it largely relies on the good faith of the executive branch. A bad-faith president has many ways to stymie Congress, which has no police force, army, or jail of its own.

And so the House committees have had to go to the third branch of government, the courts, in an effort to enforce their subpoenas. This is necessarily a slow process, and leaves open the possibility that Trump’s lawlessness may lead him to defy court orders the same way that he has been defying congressional subpoenas, moving us near the point of a coup. If it comes to that, the courts command no more guns than Congress does. [8]

The slowness of the legal process, and the possibility that neither Trump’s taxes nor Don McGahn’s testimony will ever become public, has caused Democrats’ frustration to boil over into impeachment talk, in spite of Pelosi.

But Pelosi’s allies raise this point: What problem does an impeachment inquiry solve? An impeachment subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee would subpoena the same documents and witnesses as the other committees have. Trump would likewise refuse to cooperate with those subpoenas, and the subcommittee would file the same lawsuits the other committees have already filed. So where’s the win?

An impeachment subcommittee would be on somewhat more solid legal ground, because it would be addressing an issue that the Constitution delegates to the House specifically. But so far, the House’s position has not lacked for legal strength.

This week, two judges rejected out of hand the Trump administration’s contention that Congress’ investigative power is tightly constrained. They did not suspend their rulings pending appeal, indicating their opinion that Trump’s arguments are baseless. Trump’s lawyers will undoubtedly appeal, but will be forced to appeal quickly before the documents are turned over, rather than using the legal process to stall.

Where the conflict goes. If you believe, as I do, that both paths ultimately go to the same place, ultimately this is all going to come down to three questions:

  • Is the Supreme Court (and its two Trump appointees) as partisan as it sometimes appears, or will it reject Trump’s baseless objections and enforce legal subpoenas?
  • If the Supreme Court rules against him, will Trump comply, or will he defy the united opinion of the legislative and judicial branches of government? This would amount to proclaiming the complete supremacy of the executive branch, and set the stage for dictatorship. [9]
  • If Trump’s disregard of constitutional government becomes that blatant, will Senate Republicans finally turn against him and vote to remove him from office?

I can only hope that by 2021 these scenarios will look hysterical. But given the once-unthinkable actions we’ve seen these last two years, they don’t seem hysterical to me now. I don’t expect events to go this way, but it seems likely enough that we need to be prepared.

If things do go that far, America will face a fourth question, one that comes up frequently in fragile democracies, but has never been raised in the 232 years since the ratification of the Constitution: If Trump would refuse to accept removal from office, what would the armed forces do? My firm belief is that they would back the law rather than the removed president. But let’s hope we never need to find out.


[1] It’s worth noting that, unlike President Trump, Speaker Pelosi represents a majority of the American people.

Democratic candidates for the House got nearly 10 million more votes in 2018 than Republican candidates, winning a 53%-45% popular vote victory. That victory was larger in both raw votes and percentage than the Republicans’ 2010 rout. However, gerrymandering held Pelosi’s majority down to 235-199, compared to the 2010 Republicans’ 242-193 margin.

[2] I often see reference to the public’s reaction against the Clinton impeachment. But Democrats’ shouldn’t read that as a rejection of impeachment in general. The public supported Clinton because they came to believe he was being impeached for what was essentially a private matter. Hillary should have been furious about Monica Lewinsky, but it really wasn’t Congress’ business.

The challenge for the Democrats is to make it clear that a Trump impeachment is about protecting democracy, not just partisan pique.

[3] I counted seven when I read the report. Many people say ten, but that’s not quite right. Mueller examined ten incidents that had some appearance of obstruction, but found all three elements of obstruction in only seven.

I don’t think that makes a significant difference. It’s not like the first seven obstructions of justice are free, but an eighth puts you over the limit.

[4] Michael Cohen has already gone to prison for this.

[5] We have this on the authority of no less an expert than Lindsey Graham.

The point I’m trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office.

[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.

[7] I’ve tended to shy away from psychoanalyzing Trump, but here it seems relevant: Throughout his life, Trump has taken a sociopathic view of rules, in which they are simply obstacles to overcome on the way to getting what he wants. By contrast, a properly socialized person sees rules as defining a game we play together. We obey rules not just because we will be punished for breaking them, but because we want the game to continue. (Marriage — another institution whose rules Trump has repeatedly flouted — is a good example here. In a healthy marriage, neither spouse examines the wedding vows for loopholes. Instead, each asks what effect an action has on the relationship, rather than whether it is technically permissible.)

Trump’s attitude occasionally seemed abnormal even in the rough world of New York real estate, where he would honor only as much of a contract as the other party was willing and able to enforce in court. But no previous president — not even Nixon — has ever approached the presidency in such a way. In any conflict, Trump looks at a move and asks “Will it get me what I want?” without regard to whether he is breaking American democracy.

[8] As Stalin is supposed to have asked in regard to the moral force of the Catholic Church, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” John Roberts has the same number.

[9] If he got away with this, Trump might subsequently go along with the forms of democracy, in the same way that Caesar Augustus allowed the forms of the Roman Republic to continue. But like Augustus, he will have shown that no one can stop him from doing whatever he wants.

The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released this statement:

BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.