The Post-ABC News poll shows a clear majorities of Americans oppose impeachment (56 percent), disapprove of President Trump’s performance (54 percent), think Robert S. Mueller’s report did not exonerate Trump (53 percent) and think the president lied to the country about the events documented in the special counsel’s report (58 percent).
In other words, voters may want to get rid of Trump, but not by impeachment. That may be unsatisfying to those who’ve actually read the report and taken in the magnitude of the evidence of abuse of power and obstruction (which include directions to fire Mueller, efforts to get witnesses not to cooperate, attempts to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to short-circuit the probe, and pandemic lying). It’s not, however, unexpected or entirely illogical.
From a pragmatic political perspective, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was right not to leap into impeachment hearings. As compelling as the Mueller report is on the topic of obstruction, the House is not going to impeach the president at a time when only 37 percent of voters favor such action.
That does not mean Congress should stop pressing for the entire report (which may include information about Trump associates’ conspiring with WikiLeaks) or forego testimony from Mueller, former White House counsel Donald McGahn and other key players. Congress should call Attorney General William P. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to answer for their mischaracterization of the report (and in Rosenstein’s case, to explain his entirely inappropriate and unethical discussion with Trump regarding the progress of the investigation).
The hearings will promote political accountability (which is why Trump wants to impede them) and educate the public as to the administration’s rampant misconduct and deceit. Hearings may point to wrongdoing by officials who remain in office (e.g., Barr for misleading the public about the report, Rosenstein for inappropriately giving Trump assurances and then joining in Barr’s misleading letter and news conference). The hearing may tell us the identities of any current officials who should be compelled to resign or themselves impeached. Such hearings may, together with revelations from the Southern District of New York, change public perception of impeachment, or at the very least convince more voters of Trump’s utter unfitness to govern.
If after getting the full report and conducting wide-ranging hearings, the public is still dead set against impeachment, what then? As a matter of timing, we may be well into the 2020 campaign by the time voters can render their verdict. Congress can also seek to censure Trump.
In addition, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) one of the House’s freshman stars, makes a compelling argument in a series of tweets (combined here for ease of reading) that the hearings must provide the basis for new legislation:
The Mueller Report is not just a story about what happened in 2016. It’s a warning about what could happen again, and thus a call to action to protect our democracy. The report tells us Trump wasn’t working for Russia (thankfully), but also that he wasn’t, and isn’t, working for America. He’s interested only in protecting himself, as DHS Secretary Nielsen found out when she urged action to secure the 2020 election.
This means it’s up to Congress to act. Here are some ideas.
First, we need to provide funding to secure the machinery of our elections. New Jersey, for example, is struggling to upgrade machines that leave no paper record of votes, and to harden our systems against hacking. We need more federal help.
Second, it’s illegal for political candidates to share things like polling data and campaign strategy with independent political action groups (IEs) in the US. Yet apparently it’s perfectly legal to share that info with Russian spies to help them target our voters. The rules that prohibit coordination between political candidates and IEs should also apply to coordination with a foreign government or agent of a foreign government. At the very least!
Third, political candidates should have an affirmative legal duty to report to law enforcement any offer of help coming from a foreign government or that might be illegal, like offers of hacked emails. Just as banks are required to report suspicious transactions.
Finally, Mueller concluded that “Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.” I read that not just as an invitation to hold Trump accountable, but to legislate.
We should consider how to define more clearly that actions by presidents to influence or shut down investigations in which they have a personal interest — as Trump repeatedly and blatantly tried to do — are illegal and prosecutable.
In short, by passing legislation, the House can remind voters of Trump’s conduct both inviting Russian meddling and interfering with the investigation; force Republicans to take a stand on whether the president’s actions were wrong and should be tolerated in the future; and, most important, reassert Congress’s role as a co-equal branch of government. As Malinowski writes, “None of this absolves us from the responsibility to investigate the president’s actions and reckon with the consequences. But our most basic duty as legislators is to legislate.”
It will be interesting to see how many Republicans want to declare by their votes (or refusal to take votes in the Senate) that campaigns shouldn’t have to report foreign interference or that presidents should be able to snuff out investigations into their own wrongdoing. It will be even more interesting to see Trump oppose basic protections for our democratic system.
In sum, impeachment remains an option down the road. For now, Congress, as Pelosi recommended, should be holding hearings — the results of which may be contempt proceedings against non-cooperating witnesses, grounds for censure, impeachment of individuals other than the president and legislation to prevent Trump and future presidents from engaging in reprehensible conduct of the type Mueller uncovered.
Trump loves to name things after himself, so perhaps new legislation can be titled “The Restoration of Unblemished and Meddle-free Politics (TRUMP) Act.”