“He is a racist. He is a con man. He is a cheat.”
With any other president or public figure, foul, racist language or further evidence of lying and cheating would be its own headline. At this stage, I just want to know whether President Trump is a criminal.
Democrats deftly avoided the impeachment question throughout 2018. But Wednesday’s dramatic public testimony by lawyer, fixer and felon Michael Cohen makes avoiding impeachment much more complicated. And while more noise is coming from the left flank, this is not a left-flank dilemma. It’s about the Constitution and the rule of law.
Thus far, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has quelled impeachment chatter within her caucus, mostly by telling her colleagues to “wait for the Mueller report.” After all, the Russia interference investigation is a lot for Americans to absorb — the intrigue, the technology, the Russian names — a 21st-century spy thriller. On the other hand, cheating on your taxes and your wife, and lying to win an election is like something out of a 1970s soap opera. You don’t need to pay attention to every episode to get the gist of this story.
The problem with the “wait for the Mueller report” logic is that so much of what has been alleged against the president is being investigated outside of the Mueller investigation — in federal and state courts, with state attorneys general and investigative reporters, and now in Congress. As the emoluments case from state attorneys general moves forward, as it’s poised to do, we may have another set of legal issues on our hands. You have the New York state attorney general, and you have the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The Mueller report is just another stop along the road.
But now, with Cohen’s testimony, it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to stave off the impeachment discussion in Congress.
Cohen, speaking under oath — this time truthfully, one hopes, given the stakes — named Donald Trump as “Individual 1” in an illegal campaign finance scheme with an adult-film actress. Cohen presented receipts, including one check signed by Trump himself, dated and paid out while he was president. Cohen testified about continuing negotiations on the Trump Tower Moscow project with the knowledge and direction of Trump throughout the 2016 campaign and contrary to Trump’s public statements. Cohen suggested that he discussed his previous congressional testimony with the president’s and Jared Kushner’s lawyers — testimony we now know was false. Cohen presented financial documents that may raise questions of possible bank and tax fraud by the president.
The pile of allegations is mounting. So are the political and constitutional challenges for Democrats.
The political problem is obvious. Most polls show that the president’s approval numbers are consistently in the low 40’s. In Trump stronghold districts and states, his approval remains high. Meanwhile, few Americans support impeachment. Among Democrats, support for impeachment is growing, but it’s not overwhelming. Republicans rarely criticize the president, let alone openly discuss his removal. Even as the evidence mounts and investigations compound, Republican politicians have not moved away from the president.
For Democrats, however, there can be no escaping the simple language of our Constitution: “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Privately, some Democrats may wonder, even if indeed the president has committed a felony, does he get a pass for this term? Can’t the next election take care of any high crimes? And how many felonies equal a high crime? House Democrats will need to provide some answers soon. I’m not sure “wait for the Mueller report” can hold much longer.
Whenever it arrives, the special counsel’s report may or may not be conclusive as to Trump’s involvement in Russian election interference in 2016. But today, in the interest of justice and the defense of the Constitution, Congress is obligated to act on what is right in front of them. Will they?