The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are badly blowing it against Trump. A brutal new TV ad shows how.

President Trump in Hackberry, La., on May 14. (Evan Vucci/AP)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has succeeded in stifling impeachment talk. The Post reports that the speaker privately told Democrats to stick to policy and forget about an impeachment inquiry, and not a single Democrat uttered a word in protest.

This is meant to illustrate the iron grip that Pelosi often successfully maintains on her caucus. But, whether or not you support an impeachment inquiry right now, there’s no way to describe the broader strategy that Democrats have adopted on the impeachment question as a success. It’s been a muddled mess.

A new ad that impeachment proponent Tom Steyer is set to launch illustrates this well. Notably, rather than merely making the case for an inquiry, the ad trains its fire at Democrats for failing to initiate one.

Watch it here:

Billionaire and activist Tom Steyer released an ad May 16 to urge Congress to hold President Trump "accountable." (Video: Tom Steyer)

The ad — a $1 million buy on national cable and in Iowa and New Hampshire — takes aim at what might be called the Democrats’ “Wait For Mueller” strategy, referring to the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Stringing together quotes from ordinary Americans, it says:

This is a message for leaders of the Democratic Party. For over two years, this president has broken the law, and nothing happened. You told us to wait for the Mueller investigation. And when he showed obstruction of justice, nothing happened.

Numerous Democrats did claim there was no need to decide on an impeachment inquiry until we saw Mueller’s findings.

In retrospect, this was a serious strategic failure. If it was intended as a stalling tactic — a way to delay the moment at which Democrats would reveal their real intention not to act — it only created a situation in which Mueller’s extraordinarily serious revelations made it more difficult to definitively close the door on it.

If it was sincere — i.e., Democrats really wanted Mueller’s findings before making the call — then they were not prepared for the possibility that those revelations would be severe enough to overwhelmingly warrant an inquiry, setting them up to look feckless and weak at a moment of extraordinary challenge to the country.

Whichever it was, the result has been that Democrats have been forced by the seriousness of the revelations not to close the door on impeachment, but rather to again defer the decision, by claiming that they must first do more fact-finding.

This, Democrats said, will happen via more investigations, getting the unredacted Mueller report, and hearing from key players — including former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who witnessed extensive obstruction of justice, and Mueller, who may clarify that he declined to exonerate Trump because he saw criminality.

In some ways, this is defensible. One can envision Democrats using multiple committee hearings to develop a fuller picture of Mueller’s findings (along with other aspects of Trump’s corruption and misconduct), before launching an inquiry.

But if this posture is underpinned by a secret intention to never pull that trigger, that creates yet another problem.

Pat Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, just announced that he will stiff-arm House oversight requests across the board, in effect declaring any further fleshing out of Mueller’s findings to be illegitimate. The administration is also unlawfully refusing to release the president’s tax returns, and will fight “all” subpoenas, a sweeping effort to place Trump beyond accountability entirely.

This means Democrats may be hamstrung from doing the very fact-finding they say is necessary to decide whether to launch an impeachment inquiry. Even if Democrats can fight in court, the battles could last months, and if Democrats lose on many fronts, and then see the looming election as a reason not to act, they will have been effectively neutered.

Steyer’s ad gets at this, noting that when Trump “blocked the release of his tax returns, nothing happened,” adding:

Now you tell us to wait for the next election? Really? Really? Really? This is why we volunteered. Raised money. Went door to door. And voted in the last election. Our founding fathers expected you — Congress — to hold a lawless president accountable. And you’re doing nothing. Nothing. Nothing. He broke his oath of office. He’s defying you. Laughing at you. And he’s getting away with it.

Of course, Democrats aren’t doing “nothing.” But there is the risk that if their oversight is neutered and they don’t act, this picture of fecklessness will be the reigning one.

Is there a better way to handle this? Perhaps not. Because, at bottom, the core question is whether it is acceptable for Democrats to refrain from an impeachment inquiry in the face of corruption and misconduct they plainly believe merits one.

In a media environment rendered deeply unbalanced by one side’s full-saturation propaganda about “total exoneration,” refraining from impeachment risks misleading the country into believing that Mueller’s findings aren’t as damning as they really are.

What’s more, as Brian Beutler and Quinta Jurecic argue, refraining inescapably validates Trump’s corruption as a kind of new normal. With Trump urging his attorney general to investigate the investigators, it incentivizes the president to expand his lawlessness, since he can do so with impunity.

The better arguments against acting are that the Senate won’t convict, so full accountability is impossible anyway, or that impeachment is a political decision, so Congress isn’t obliged to do it. Or maybe it really would help Trump get reelected (though that idea is baseless).

But none of those arguments reckons seriously with the downsides of not acting, which are considerable. And none takes seriously what it would mean if Democratic oversight is neutered and it’s too late to act. Or, even worse, what it would mean if Trump won reelection after all that happened.

If Democrats do believe an impeachment inquiry is merited, it’s not clear there’s any magic key to credibly arguing their way out of not launching one. Perhaps there is a way, but they certainly haven’t hit on it yet.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Want to impeach Trump? Go convince the voters.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: In the battle over impeachment, Trump and the GOP have fired the first shots

Greg Sargent: The nightmare scenario for Democrats on Trump’s corruption

Julian E. Zelizer: Democrats are complicit if they don’t impeach Trump