Opinion writer

Republicans keep insisting that the Democrats’ game plan since the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been impeachment. This is wishful thinking, praying Democrats will do for President Trump what Newt Gingrich and the Republicans did for Bill Clinton: swing and miss, thereby making themselves look unhinged and untrustworthy. (“Impeachment!” is also a sure-fire way to get their base, already in a victim mind-set, enraged over the potential that the “deep state” is going to steal away the presidency. Of course, Vice President Pence would move up to replace Trump, but never let logic get in the way of a good paranoid rant.)

Republicans seem not to appreciate that there are things much worse for Trump than a failed impeachment and removal effort. On Sunday, we started to get a peek at what that might look like.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) explained that before anyone starts talking about impeachment, there needs to be investigation — lots of it:

NADLER: Our core job is to protect the rule of law, and there have been no investigations [under Republicans]. We’ve seen real threats to the rule of law from this White House, whether personal enrichment — the White House seems to have used its power for personal enrichment in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, we’ve seen abuses of power, obstruction of justice, threats to the Mueller investigation, threats to witnesses, all of these have to be an abuse of — all of these have to be investigated and laid out to the American people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me pick up on that abuse of power that you lay out. There’s one school of thought that a sitting president can’t be indicted, especially for actions he takes in office.

But some of your fellow Democrats already say that the evidence the president has obstructed justice in the Russia investigation is an abuse of power that justifies impeachment.

So can there be impeachable offenses like that that are not crimes?

NADLER: Oh, sure. Crimes and impeachable offense is two different things. There can be crimes that are impeachable offenses and impeachable offenses that are not crimes. They’re just two different tests.

But we have to lay out for the American people and we can’t depend on the Mueller investigation for this. The Mueller investigation, number one, we don’t know when it’s ending despite lots of rumors, number two it’s focused on specific crimes. . . .

We’ve seen attacks on the freedom of the press, the press called the enemy of the people, we’ve seen attacks on the Department of Justice, attacks on the FBI, attacks on — on judges. All of these are very corrosive to liberty and to the proper functioning of government and to our constitutional system.

All this has to be looked at and the facts laid out to the American people.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think the president obstructed justice?

NADLER: Yes, I do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If that’s —

NADLER: It’s very clear that the president obstructed justice. It’s very clear — 1,100 times he referred to the Mueller investigation as a witch hunt, he tried to – he fired – he tried to protect Flynn from being investigated by the FBI. He fired Comey in order to stop the Russian thing, as he told NBC News. He — he’s dangled part —

STEPHANOPOULOS: But —

NADLER: He’s threat — he’s intimidated witnesses. In public.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If that’s the case, then is the decision not to pursue impeachment right now simply political? If you believe he obstructed justice?

NADLER: No. We have to — we have to do the investigations and get all this. We do not now have the evidence all sorted out and everything to do — to do an impeachment. Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen. You have to persuade enough of the — of the opposition party voters, Trump voters, that you’re not just trying to . . .

STEPHANOPOULOS: That’s a very high bar.

NADLER: Yeah. It is a very high bar. That you’re not just trying to steal the last — to reverse the results of the last election. We may or may not get there. But what we have to do is protect the rule of law. . . .

STEPHANOPOULOS: One final question. The president put out a tweet yesterday morning — early yesterday morning, want to show it up on the screen, “Very proud of perhaps the greatest golf course anywhere in the world. Also furthers U.K. relationship.” That of course is a Trump golf course in Scotland. Many ethics experts came out and said that’s a violation of the emoluments clause. Do you agree?

NADLER: It certainly seems to be. He seems to have violated the emoluments clause in a lot of different ways and that’s one of the things we should be investigating under — under abuses — under abuses of power. Let me say this; Congress has to do its job. And Congress has to do its job whether it’s investigating the administration, holding the administration accountable, which Republicans in Congress absolutely refuse to do, and dealing with our other problems. . . .

To sum up: The Mueller investigation is one piece of the puzzle. To do its job, Congress must investigate it all — from emoluments to obstruction to financial crimes. The investigation is a goal unto itself, for it reveals to voters the nature of this presidency and allows them to hold him accountable at the ballot box. (Indictments can take place after he leaves office.)

As we have noticed, if Democrats spend the next year following the facts and the money, maybe revealing possible crimes but also just outright deceit (e.g., lying about hush money, lying about the Trump Tower deal), Democrats won’t need to impeach him, not if they’ve convinced an electoral majority this guy needs to get booted out and face law enforcement.

Likewise, it might not be a crime, but it is relevant, as Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) pointed out, if Trump lied about the Trump Tower deal, spent the campaign spouting Russian propaganda to get on Vladimir Putin’s good side and then found himself in a compromising position.

Moreover, Mueller’s charge is to find what degree of cooperation existed between the Trump team and the Russians. Warner points out that we already know some of that: “Well, let’s go — just go through the litany of what we know. The ongoing negotiations about Trump Tower, well into the campaign, I believe the fact that Mr. Trump knew about the, the dump of the WikiLeaks material, the fact that, clearly, the meeting at Trump Tower, which was not described appropriately, in terms of offering dirt, the president’s campaign manager sharing information, polling information with the Russians, the earlier instance, where Russians were offering, through one of the campaigns, [George] Papadopoulos information.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) echoed this precise point: “Well, I think there is direct evidence [of collusion] in the emails from the Russians through their intermediary offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of what is described in writing as the Russian government effort to help elect Donald Trump. They offer that dirt.” He continued, “There is an acceptance of that offer in writing from the president’s son Don Jr., and there is overt acts in furtherance of that. That is the meeting at Trump Tower and all the lies to cover up that meeting at the Trump Tower and, apparently, lies that the president participated in. That to me is direct evidence, but there’s also abundant circumstantial evidence.” He added, “There is, for example, evidence of [Paul] Manafort sharing internal polling data with someone linked to the Russian intelligence services.”

That’s the kind of information Mueller was supposed to find; whether it rises to the level of a crime will be determined later. If the country as a whole finds the totality of Trump’s conduct repugnant, justifying removal, impeachment on bipartisan lines remains a possibility.

Republicans would rather raise the boogeyman of impeachment than allow the public to hear for themselves through credible witnesses and documentary evidence whether Trump is fit. Unlike Republican cultists who find Trump without a blemish (he doesn’t even lie, the oleaginous Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan tells us), members of the public tell every pollster who asks that they find his character and credibility lacking. Now they are going to see the depth and breadth of Trump’s mendacity.

The Democratic chairmen should keep pounding away on key points. There is direct and circumstantial evidence of cooperation with the Russians; there is ample evidence of obstruction of justice; federal prosecutors already accused Trump (Individual-1) of ordering Michael Cohen to commit a crime; Trump lied about his misconduct (e.g., Stormy Daniels, doing business with Russia during a campaign) to get elected; and we are just beginning to learn of potential financial crimes. We’ll learn more — over the next year or so of investigations.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: In hearing, Republicans offer zero in response to Michael Cohen’s actual claims

Jennifer Rubin: The ongoing danger of impeachment fixation

Max Boot: Here are five felonies Trump committed — if Cohen is telling the truth

Eugene Robinson: Michael Cohen’s revelations advance Trump’s inevitable reckoning

David Ignatius: Michael Cohen’s testimony reminds us that Trump’s investigations are far from over