The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to impeach Trump? Go convince the voters.

Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

President Trump’s willingness (still!) to accept help from a foreign power to smear political enemies, to use the Justice Department to investigate opponents, to violate the First Amendment rights of Americans, and to interfere with the special counsel’s work and now Congress’s oversight collectively exceed the threshold for impeachment. By a lot. That is not where the country is, however, so defenders of the Constitution must do a better job of explaining the stakes.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) did her part, reading from Robert S. Mueller III’s report last week on the Senate floor and explaining the president’s conduct in obstructing investigators. Her colleagues should put forth the effort to actually read the report and give similar speeches on the severity of the threat to our constitutional government.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, did his part on Sunday, explaining on ABC’s “This Week” what the fights over subpoenas are all about:

[Host] George Stephanopoulos: This Department of Justice is . . . saying they’ve turned over almost the entire Mueller report unredacted. The attorney general, William Barr, has testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They’re saying they’re prevented by law from giving over this grand jury information so what’s the difference here?
Adam Schiff: There are categorical differences. So, first, the Obama administration made dozens of witnesses available to the Congress, provided numerous thousands of documents, as you just heard, to the Republicans in Congress. And yes, it made specific claims of privilege. But here, the Trump administration has decided to say a blanket no; no to any kind of oversight whatsoever, no witnesses, no documents, no nothing, claiming executive privilege over things that it knows there is no basis for. There’s no executive privilege over the hundreds of thousands of documents regarding events that took place before Donald Trump was president.
You can’t have a privilege — an executive privilege when you’re not the executive. So, they know that vast categories are inapplicable to the privilege here. So they’re just stonewalling. . . . Well, we’re going to have to enforce so much of this in court, and we’re seeing signs already and I think this is positive that the courts understand the urgency here. And the first case to get to the court involving the accountants, the House Oversight Committee, the judge has said essentially we’re going to expedite the schedule; I’m going to give you a quick judgment on it. And look, we are going to have to consider other remedies like inherent contempt, where if the courts take too long we use our own judicial process within the Congress.

Turning to Trump’s statement, that it would be appropriate to ask a foreign country to investigate a claim (thoroughly debunked) involving former vice president Joe Biden, Schiff explained, “Of course it’s not appropriate. . . . And here the president of the United States is saying it’s perfectly okay for him — and he has said this before — to go to the attorney general and get them to open an investigation of his rivals. And sadly, this attorney general has turned out to be so political and partisan and so without, frankly without integrity, he just might do it.” Schiff went on to say that “we’re not even done with this investigation of the last foreign interference in our election and [Trump lawyer Rudolph W.] Giuliani, apparently with the president’s. . . knowledge and blessing, was going to get the help of another foreign government in a presidential election."

A lawless president trying to thwart Congressional oversight sets a dangerous precedent. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump is preventing Congress from exercising its authority, including the authority to investigate Trump’s abuse of power— his use of the government for personal political advantage and his continued invitations to foreign countries to help pick our president. For Democrats, that’s a message that has to be repeated again and again.

Other court cases also may prove instructive for voters. A lawsuit was filed against Trump by the journalist group PEN America arguing that Trump has used executive powers to coerce and intimidate journalists in violation of the First Amendment and even to use regulatory power to punish businesses he dislikes. An amicus brief filed by a group of academics laid out a compelling case for why Trump’s actions — ranging from revoking CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press pass (as well as that of my colleague Dana Milbank), to threatening postal increases on Amazon (whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Post), to attempting to interfere with a merger between AT&T and Time Warner because of Trump’s vendetta against CNN — should be seen in the context of other authoritarian leaders who eroded democratic protections.

They write:

Time and again, we have seen power-hungry leaders of other countries chip away at the freedom and independence of the press, threatening their citizens’ access to critical information. These democratically elected leaders know that they must neutralize or co-opt the press to eliminate a check on the government and pave the way for them to increase their power and cause their countries to “back-slide” into autocratic regimes. These leaders also know that the suppression of the press and the transformation from democracy to autocracy does not occur overnight. Rather, these democratically elected leaders follow a “playbook” pursuant to which they slowly and methodically [1] undermine the public’s trust in the press, [2] block access to press organizations viewed as critical of the regime, [3] harm the interests of the owners of disfavored press organizations, and [4] punish or otherwise censor disfavored journalists and press organizations. History shows that when democratic leaders employ this playbook in a systematic effort to control the press, their countries do not remain democracies for long.

After taking us through examples such as Turkey, Poland and Hungary, the authors explain: “President Trump’s repeated deployment of government power against the press — unprecedented in modern times in this country — replicates the playbook used by strong-man leaders and their allies in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere to erode the democratic institutions in those countries.” They then go down the list of autocratic moves, finding that Trump has waged war against the media’s credibility (“fake news”), has tried to block access of critical outlets and journalists, has attacked their businesses (e.g., Amazon, AT&T), and has punished or threatened outlets (e.g., by amending libel laws).

The lawsuit concludes:

It is difficult to imagine that the United States could be on the path toward abandoning its democratic principles. But it was similarly difficult for citizens of other democratic nations to imagine that they would see their countries back-slide into pseudo-autocratic or autocratic regimes. It does not happen overnight. Indeed, it is the slow drip of the concentration of power by elected strong-man leaders that corrode democracies. A necessary step in that corrosive process is the undermining of the free press. As we have seen throughout the world, strong-man leaders employ similar tactics from the autocratic playbook to stifle the free press. Without a strong and independent judiciary to protect the freedom of the press, we too could see our democracy back-slide from its founding principles.

And that’s the challenge, isn’t it? It is difficult — but not impossible — to highlight the urgent, real threat to our democracy and constitutional government without giving way to hysteria and without numbing the public with the volume of Trump’s excesses. We’d suggest three ways to help Americans comprehend the enormity of the problem.

First, the chairmen of the relevant House oversight committees (Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Government Reform) should hold a joint, weekly news conference, maintain a joint website (in addition to their separate ones) to track and highlight the president’s attacks on democracy, and put out periodic reports to recount Trump’s offenses. They can help voters understand the big picture and help prioritize issues, so that the media and public don’t get buried in the mass of evidence of Trump’s unconstitutional conduct.

Second, Democratic presidential candidates should hold a joint forum (in prime time, sponsored by one of the news networks) solely on this issue. (Debates have to meet the Democratic National Committee’s guidelines, but forums where they do not appear together are permissible.) Let them explain the ways in which Trump has undermined our democracy and what post-Trump repairs are needed (e.g., the criminalization of pursuing opposition research from a foreign power) to repair the damage he’s done and to shore up important norms.

Third, instead of haranguing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to take up impeachment, members of the House and others who favor impeachment need to commit to a public education campaign. The “problem” is not Pelosi, but voters who don’t fully appreciate the danger Trump poses. And impeachment supporters shouldn’t waste their time going to conferences in San Francisco or New York where people already agree with them. Instead, they need to speak to the heartland, generate grass-roots support and challenge former politicians (presidents, vice presidents, attorneys general) to help educate voters. (And Tom Steyer’s ads simply demanding that Democrats impeach Trump are of no use.)

In sum, individual congressmen cannot shoulder the entire burden of moving public opinion. If supporters of impeachment (including presidential candidates) are serious, they need to get to work and win over voters. Otherwise, they should quit complaining that leadership in Congress isn’t bold enough.

Read more:

E.J. Dionne Jr: Protect the Constitution, Democrats — and health care, while you’re at it

Dana Milbank: For Trump, Morning in America never seems to dawn

David Von Drehle: Democrats are falling into Trump’s trap. History proves it.

Anne Applebaum: Trump has the attention span of a gnat. It’s destroying our foreign policy.