Opinion writer

As the political world digests the shocking scale of corruption, misconduct, relentless lying, and skirting of criminality detailed in the Mueller report, Democrats have been pushing back on the idea that it’s time to initiate an inquiry into the impeachment of President Trump.

But there’s a key tell lurking in all this pushback: Democrats are not seriously arguing that all the misconduct that has now come to light does not merit an impeachment inquiry.

This is creating a situation that’s shaping up as a moral and political disaster. Yet there’s no indication that Democrats are reckoning with the problems this poses. This, even though the basic dynamics of the situation strongly suggest that initiating an inquiry will grow harder to resist over time, not easier.

By my count, Democrats are offering at least three different rationales for refraining from launching such an inquiry.

Earlier Friday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told ABC News that he agrees the report demonstrates that Trump committed rampant obstruction of justice; that Trump has lied relentlessly to the American people; and that his campaign at a minimum was eager to coordinate with Russian electoral sabotage.

But Nadler was also asked whether he will open impeachment proceedings. “We’re not there,” Nadler replied. He noted Democrats would question special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Attorney General William P. Barr, and announced Democrats are subpoenaing the unredacted report.

“After we get that,” Nadler said, the question of impeachment can better be addressed: “One of the things we need that evidence for is to determine whether to do that or not.”

Nadler is saying that once they have all this additional information, Democrats will be better equipped to decide whether to launch an inquiry. But this is an evasion: Nadler is not directly saying whether what we currently know does or does not merit doing so. In effect, then, he’s mainly saying Democrats are “not there” in a procedural sense.

A second rational Democrats have offered is more puzzling.

“Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 in the House Democratic leadership, told CNN. “There is an election in 18 months and the American people will make a judgment.”

This is a muddled mess. Again, Hoyer does not directly address whether what we now know merits an inquiry; here’s merely saying it does not render an inquiry worth doing for Democrats. As the next sentence reveals, he means this in a political sense: There’s no need to act now, because the election will settle whether Trump is unfit to serve and create an occasion to remove him.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has offered a similar rationale, claiming that Trump himself is “not worth it.” But this, too, is an evasion: The question isn’t whether this carries “worth” for Democrats; it’s whether Trump’s misconduct demands an impeachment inquiry on the merits.

We simply don’t know what these Democrats think is the answer to that question. And the very act of refraining from seriously grappling with it — an evasion that is also present in the suggestion that the next election will settle it — is itself a dereliction of institutional duty.

Finally, Democrats have also suggested that an impeachment inquiry should be avoided until Republicans grow convinced that removal is merited, because without that an inquiry would divide the country or isn’t worth doing because the Senate wouldn’t ever convict.

But this, too, is fatally flawed. It gives Republicans veto power over even the question of whether to launch an inquiry. Importantly, an inquiry is not a decision whether to impeach or not. Rather, it initiates a long, deliberative fact-gathering process that is designed to ultimately inform that decision.

Thus, this rationale is an evasion and a dereliction of institutional duty on its face: It takes the very possibility of making a deliberative decision on whether impeachment is appropriate off the table entirely, simply by virtue of the fact that at the end of the process, Republicans will never acknowledge that it is, for reasons that have nothing to do with the known facts about Trump’s misconduct.

In short, it allows Republicans to dictate that the question isn’t even worth a serious effort to answer. And, like the other rationales, it does not address whether an inquiry is merited by what we now know.

An untenable position

Embedded in many of these rationales is the idea that the politics of an inquiry are daunting: It will ultimately fail while simultaneously energizing Trump’s base in 2020. Or Democratic overreach risks alienating swing voters.

But even if those are true, these flimsy rationales create their own political problem. The basic posture seems to be that if Democrats wait until the shock of the Mueller revelations dies down, then the question of whether to launch an inquiry will recede with it.

But how can Democrats harbor that hope, while simultaneously pressing forward with multiple investigations of their own? Nadler wants to hear from Mueller and get the full report. Democrats are pursuing Trump’s tax returns, and they have subpoenaed Deutsche Bank and Trump’s accounting firm to access Trump’s finances. It’s at least possible Democrats will get those returns, and aides say they expect cooperation from those outside entities.

All this has left Democrats in the impossible position of hoping the case for impeachment weakens, while simultaneously moving aggressively to establish more wrongdoing, which would strengthen that case. Are Democrats hoping their own investigative efforts don’t succeed in doing that?

The case for an inquiry is strong

The case for launching an inquiry based on what we now know is strong. As Yoni Appelbaum explains, Mueller’s report declares that presidents can, in fact, violate obstruction-of-justice statutes and amasses extensive evidence that Trump actually did so, while simultaneously declining to reach a prosecution decision. This means only Congress can decide whether Trump will be subject to a process in which he actually can be held accountable. That, in turn, means not launching an inquiry places him above the law.

That’s not all. As Brian Beutler argues, by doing that, Democrats would essentially cede the field to the Trump propaganda machine, which wants to shift the debate into one over whether the “real” crimes were committed by the investigators, with the complicity of Democrats. Thus, not acting now paves the way for more Trumpian abuses of power.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter so much what I or Appelbaum or Beutler thinks as much as it matters what Democrats think. If they don’t actually believe the known misconduct merits an impeachment inquiry, then they shouldn’t initiate one and make a real case for not doing so, and we’ll have to accept all the consequences that come with it. But if they do actually think one is merited, then stalling is simply untenable.

What is entirely unacceptable at this point is not seriously engaging the question at all.

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Update: I should have noted that Hoyer did subsequently clean up his remarks after coming under criticism.

Read more:

Randall D. Eliason: William Barr’s incredibly misleading words

Paul Waldman: The Mueller report puts it beyond dispute: Trump is profoundly corrupt

Max Boot: The Mueller report reads like an impeachment referral

George Conway: Trump is a cancer on the presidency. Congress should remove him.

Jennifer Rubin: Five questions that still need to be answered in the Mueller report

George Terwilliger: William Barr did this nation a great service. He shouldn’t be attacked.