Opinion writer

In an interview on Fox News this morning, President Trump dismissed the idea that he could be impeached. “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job,” he said. As they grow increasingly fearful about the losses they might suffer in November, many Republicans are hoping that raising the specter of Trump being impeached will motivate their base to stampede to the polls. With the president’s former personal lawyer saying in court that he committed crimes at the president’s behest — and more misdeeds will be revealed, I suspect — it’s hard to avoid the topic. But as The Post’s Michael Scherer reports, Democratic leaders in Congress are telling their candidates to tread carefully:

A day after President Trump’s former lawyer implicated him in directing a crime, Democratic leaders sharpened their election-year attack on the GOP as the party of corruption. But in an effort to keep the electoral focus on bread-and-butter issues, they largely steered clear of any discussion of impeachment. …

Party leaders encouraged candidates and elected members to talk instead about demanding protection for the ongoing Justice Department investigations of Trump and his allies, offering a clear sign that they feel confident that grass-roots energy against Trump will show up at the polls without the need for a divisive rallying cry from the stump.

In some circles, that advice will get Democrats branded as cowards, because there’s no question that many Democratic voters believe there are more than enough grounds for Trump to be impeached already. You can’t separate this question from that context, of a Democratic electorate that has been frustrated for decades by politicians who seemed too timid to stand up to Republicans and fight fire with fire. These days, many people on the left view Michelle Obama’s insistence that “When they go low, we go high” as admirable but naive.

But you can believe that Trump deserves impeachment, and also believe that promising you’ll push for it if you win control of the House just doesn’t accomplish very much, either substantively or politically

First you have to confront a practical reality: It takes 67 votes to convict in the Senate, and there is almost nothing that will make 15 or 20 Republican senators (depending on how many are in the chamber next year) vote to remove Trump from office. So saying you support impeaching Trump actually means saying you support impeaching him in the House, then holding a trial in the Senate at which he will be acquitted.

Now, maybe you can argue that even that course of events is worth undertaking, but if what you actually mean is that you think he should be removed from office, you have to acknowledge that there’s only a tiny chance it will happen.

Why should Democrats give some carefully calibrated answer to this question? Can’t they just being forthright about what they think? Isn’t that what we want from people who run for office? Absolutely. And candidates can both express their feelings and be realistic. They could say, “Do I think Trump should be removed from office based on what we already know? Sure. But it won’t happen until something radically changes inside the Republican Party, so pursuing it at this point won’t do any good.”

Not only that, it’s a near certainty that by the time special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is finished with his investigation, more will have been revealed about what Trump and those around him did — before, during and after the 2016 campaign. What we learn might make impeachment more compelling, but we just don’t know yet.

More importantly, in the meantime Democrats can and should talk about the kind of accountability that they want to bring to the president and the administration without using impeachment. And there is so much that Democrats will be able to do if they control just one house of Congress. Here’s just some of what they can and should do to hold the administration, and Trump personally, accountable if they seize the House:

  • Use their control of the Ways and Means Committee to obtain and release Trump’s tax returns so that we finally learn what he has been hiding.
  • Hold hearings on the ways Trump is personally profiting off the presidency and potentially violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
  • Mount a serious, comprehensive investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s cooperation with that attack.
  • Investigate accusations of wrongdoing that have been leveled at Cabinet officials such as Wilbur Ross and Ryan Zinke.
  • Demand answers from the administration on the decision-making process and effects of controversial administration policies, such as adding a citizenship question to the census, relaxing rules for power plant emissions, making it easier for private “universities” to scam students, and tearing children from their parents’ arms at the border.

All that has been missing because Republicans in Congress refuse to exercise even the mildest degree of oversight over the administration. If and when Democrats are able to do so, they will be serving an important function for the public, and yes, gaining political benefit from it at the same time.

The truth is that as much as we might enjoy debating impeachment here in Washington, there aren’t that many congressional candidates out there talking about it. They’re focusing on things such as health care, wages and corruption, not on whether we can hold a dramatic trial of the president. If forced to state a position on impeachment, most of them will probably answer with something like, “We’ll see — but in the meantime, there are more important things to worry about.” Which might be the best answer of all.