The magnitude and variety of President Trump’s sins of commission (e.g. repeated attempts to derail the Russia investigation) and omission (e.g. failing to protect our country from meddling) suggest that once Robert S. Mueller III finishes his report and his indictments, there will be ample grounds to conclude that the president abused his power and violated his oath. We think a majority of House members in good conscience (which would mean Republicans), when all the facts are in and his efforts to undermine the Russia investigation are laid out, could find that his conduct met the standard for impeachment (“high crimes and misdemeanors”). It’s important to draw a line in the sand, to tell future presidents what is acceptable and what is not. However, as I’ve pondered what may await us after the midterms, my thinking has changed on the propriety of impeachment. Yes, they could impeach (or try), but would it be wise?
Let’s remember that unless Mueller’s findings are so damning and Republicans take such a beating in the midterms, a two-thirds majority in the Senate to actually remove him will be virtually impossible to assemble. (If that consensus becomes a real possibility, what follows will need to be revisited.) The choice then is between a symbolic act of impeachment (albeit a powerful one) or some other action(s), such as censure and/or prosecution after he leaves office, if there are sufficient grounds to think he has violated criminal statutes.
The downside of a symbolic impeachment (or even a successful one) is serious and far-reaching. The constant fights over legitimacy (Voting fraud! The Russians elected him!) will be corrosive and make governance in the future even more problematic. A large segment of the country will argue that there has been a political coup. Trump supporters will claim the “establishment” took him down and overrode the will of the people.
Perhaps another route would be prudent: Investigate, expose, legislate, censure, defeat and prosecute. Let’s take each in order.
Investigate: A Democratic majority in either house can conduct real oversight, using the subpoena power to obtain everything from Trump’s tax records to Hope Hicks’s diary (if it exists). Hearings should be open to the public; phony claims of executive privilege should be dismissed. Allegations by Trump’s female accusers and any hush payments should also be aired. Were any women coerced into signing false statements, as Stormy Daniels claimed she was?
Expose: An exhaustive account of not only Russian meddling and any coordination with the Trump camp but also of any and all conflicts of interest, misleading statements, improper conduct toward women and receipt of foreign emoluments will set the record straight. We need a complete description of how this president attempted to direct the Justice Department in ways that depart from past practice and the historical separation between the Justice Department and the White House.
Legislate: Congress can require presidents to disclose their tax returns. Congress also can require presidents to divest of their active businesses, toughen anti-nepotism laws, prevent self-dealing (profiting from the presidency while in office) and limit taxpayer reimbursement for personal travel (e.g. back and forth to Trump’s properties). If Trump chooses to maintain financial secrecy and hold onto his businesses rather than remain in the presidency, that’s his choice.
Censure: Congress can take up a motion of censure, if it finds he has behaved in ways that have disgraced the office. This reinforces standards of conduct and serves as a guide to future presidents.
Defeat: If Trump is still in office after all that, the voters get a chance to render their verdict in 2020. That is as it should be. The peaceful transfer of power once again can take place.
Prosecute: If Trump is found to have committed illegal actions, he can be prosecuted after leaving office. A Democratic successor (maybe even a Republican one) would be unlikely to pardon him. (He can try pardoning himself, but that, I strongly suspect, will not hold up in court.)
All of that may not be as emotionally satisfying as impeachment, but it may provide what we badly need as a country — consensus on facts, closure and a new code of presidential conduct. Moreover, he will be held accountable — by Congress and by the voters. And if anyone doubts how much Trump fears all that scrutiny and exposure, just consider how adamant he has been about concealing his tax records.