Americans’ heightened aversion to impeachment — 29 percent favor impeachment in the latest Quinnipiac poll, while 66 percent do not — seems unrelated to a belief in President Trump’s innocence or approval of his performance. In the same poll in which 66 percent oppose impeachment, including 38 percent of Democrats, 55 percent (96 percent of Democrats) disapprove of his performance, 57 percent think Trump committed crimes before being elected (91 percent of Democrats) and 46 percent (92 percent of Democrats) think he committed crimes while in office. Interestingly, when asked if they would support hearings to investigate whether to pursue impeachment, 47 percent say yes, and 51 percent say no.
Trump and his sycophantic spinners would like us to believe that the aversion to impeachment means Americans believe Robert S. Mueller III’s report exonerated the president (51 percent say it did not) or that he didn’t interfere in the investigation (54 percent say he did). It does not. Likewise, it does not mean that Americans distrust the Mueller report (72 percent say he conducted a fair investigation).
So why the reluctance to impeach? There is no definitive answer to the question, but perhaps Trump critics fear Congress won’t be able to do other things if it is enmeshed in impeachment (53 percent say they have this concern). Others might recognize that Republicans are so devoted to Trump that impeachment will be fruitless, and perhaps spur him to behave even more outrageously once he “wins” in the Senate trial. Still others might worry that it will backfire in the president’s favor, as they believe it did during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. (Republicans did lose House seats in the 1998 midterms, but nevertheless won back the presidency in 2000.)
Voters (especially the majority who say they’ll never vote for him) in essence might be telling us that Democrats should just go out and beat him in 2020. That’s unsatisfactory to those who sincerely believe (as I do) that Trump committed impeachable acts (e.g., in the 10 episodes of obstruction Mueller outlined, in his refusal to acknowledge the Russian threat, in his lying to the American people about his pursuit of the Trump Tower deal in 2016). What then can the House do?
Certainly, the House should demand to hear from key witnesses as well as Attorney General William P. Barr and Mueller. That means enforcing subpoenas for documents and for testimony as well as holding noncomplying witnesses in contempt. If Trump is seen directly threatening witnesses or ordering them to disregard a subpoena, Congress can make the case to the public that we cannot leave him in office until 2020.
As for Barr, the House can conduct impeachment hearings of Cabinet members who lie or withhold evidence or refuse to appear. It can cut funding for the attorney general’s executive office (depriving him of salary and staff). The House can also pass legislation criminalizing (going forward) failure to report foreign contacts with a campaign and for directing individuals to interfere with a witness subject to a lawful subpoena. It can pass legislation requiring presidents to release tax returns and to divest themselves of any business. The Senate will not take up any of this, but its participation in stonewalling then becomes an election issue.
Finally, the House should be patient. We still don’t have the entire unredacted Mueller report. (A key unanswered question: Did the Trump campaign conspire or coordinate with WikiLeaks, a Russian cutout?) We have yet to hear Mueller’s testimony. We have not yet seen the results of New York state attorney general’s investigations or of the 14 investigations spun off from Mueller’s investigation. Donald McGahn has not yet testified. The House should also work on its policy agenda and spend more energy pointing the finger at the Senate, which is the real barrier to legislation on multiple fronts (not House investigations). It might also help focus attention on Trump’s mendacity if the presidential candidates would focus a tad more (as former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris have) on Trump’s impeachable conduct and the danger of — God forbid — reelecting someone with no regard for the law and no internal restraints.
Perhaps the American people — fearing tumult, recriminations and a Trumpian surge of support — will never come around to the idea of impeachment. At that point, censure becomes a possibility. In the meantime, House investigators should press on, educating the public about the severity of Trump’s wrongdoing.