We should also be realistic about the election calendar. Assuming Mueller would have to return a report, House hearings would need to be held, and then a vote on impeachment would follow in the committee and later the full House. Then we’d go over to the Senate for a full trial. It’s hard to imagine this wouldn’t spill into calendar year 2020. Would we really prefer that excruciating process, when the presidential campaign, which would be fully underway, would allow voters to deliver their own verdict in 2020?
Taking a step back, the focus on the Mueller report (even to the exclusion of all the other investigations) has distorted our evaluation of the president’s conduct. The anticipation about the report — and each verdict or plea that precedes it — overshadow the president’s abject ignorance, instability, dishonesty and incompetence. If the sole determination of a president’s survival and reelection is “couldn’t pin a high crime and misdemeanor on him,” we’re going to wind up with many more ignorant, unstable, dishonest and incompetent presidents. We’ll have inadvertently made it easier for unfit presidents to avoid political consequences by confusing impeachment and removal with a political determination of the president’s performance.
There are two other key considerations here.
First, the voters provided a check on Trump in the form of a Democratic House majority in 2018. However, a clear majority of voters said they were opposed to impeachment. They pretty clearly told us they want oversight, investigation and restraint but not removal — at least based on what they knew on Election Day. We diminish the importance of midterms and of Congress’s normal oversight role by defaulting to impeachment as the only means of preventing damage to our constitutional system.
We’ve seen this play out in the fight over the emergency declaration, an assertion of brute power unsupported by facts or the Constitution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in remarks on Monday didn’t call for impeachment. Rather, she said:
I know that our Republican colleagues care about the Constitution of the United States. I know that they believe in the separation of powers. I know that they don’t want a President, Republican or Democrat, to usurp the powers of the institution in which we serve. I know that they are committed to strengthening the Congress of the United States, which is the institution we all serve, as part of the separation of powers, the checks and balances, the strengths we all bring in the People’s House and in the Senate as well. ...This is a historic moment for our country. Perhaps it affords us the opportunity for all Americans to have civics lesson about the Constitution of the United States, the protections therein including freedom of the press which is our strength — the guardian of the gate of our democracy.
There are few moments where there is a priceless opportunity for civic education without the potential that one side will be entirely vanquished (as with impeachment and removal). Undergoing some periodic refresher courses in separation of powers helps to ward off future power grabs and encourage devotion to the Constitution.
Second, in all the talk of impeachment and possible indictment, we’ve collectively gotten lost in the weeds. “Well, it’s maybe not really a criminal campaign finance violation.” Stop! The president’s payments to women to disguise alleged affairs and repeated lying to the American people are totally unacceptable. Such actions should be grounds in and of themselves for booting him out of office in 2020. Whether it’s a criminal matter, and a serious enough criminal matter to warrant impeachment, misses the mark. Instead we should have the public debate as to whether someone of such sleazy character willing to perpetuate a lie has any business being in office. The conclusion should be a moral and political no-brainer; however, when we’re obsessed with impeachment, we tend to avoid the debate as to the bare minimum standards we expect a president to uphold.
The same default to legalisms is seen in the context of witness-tampering. (Hmmm, does falsely hinting about a White House taping system in advance of James Comey’s testimony meet the letter of the criminal statue?) We see it play out in consideration of his “simply” lying to hide his ongoing deal for a Moscow Trump Tower from the voters. (Recall this apparently prompted him to act as Vladimir Putin’s apologist and PR man.) Frankly, we shouldn’t care if conducting business with a foe of the United States and lying about it to get elected are illegal; the actions are outrageous and a betrayal of his country.
Instead of fodder for articles of impeachment, the particulars of Trump’s egregious conduct should form the unassailable argument for Republicans to dump him as their nominee, and in the event they do not, for the rest of us, regardless of ideological differences with the other party, to vote Trump out. The lesson should be a party that enables and rationalizes such conduct loses power, maybe for a very long time.
We want to know the facts about Trump’s conduct, for with facts comes accountability for Trump and his enablers. Moreover, being president is not a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card; it is important to see the president held to the same criminal, legal standards as the rest of us and if warranted, indicted, tried and convicted after leaving office.
For now, I agree Democratic presidential contenders should largely ignore Trump and focus on policy and their own qualifications. However, in the general election it is imperative that the nominee present the case to the jury — the American people — for Trump’s removal. It’s at the ballot box that we can vindicate the rule of law and reinforce democratic norms.
Reducing the Trump fiasco to a binary choice between impeachment or his survival would relieve voters of the awesome responsibility of self-governance and deprive us of what is turning out to be the most magnificent and edifying seminar in American constitutional government one could ever hope to attend.