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Opinion A top Democrat warns: If we don’t confront Trump, he’ll grow more lawless

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) speaks during a hearing on confronting white supremacy at the Capitol on May 15. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
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House Democrats are embroiled in an increasingly intense debate over whether to launch an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, an outcome that appears to be growing harder for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to resist.

The Post reports that at a meeting Monday night, Judiciary Committee Democrats pummeled Pelosi with the argument that initiating an inquiry would maximize legal leverage to force compliance with their oversight demands, which Trump is choking off on many fronts.

Moments ago, former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who witnessed extensive and likely criminal obstruction of justice, failed to honor a Judiciary Committee subpoena, honoring Trump’s command not to appear.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) stated his intent to hear former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s testimony. (Video: Reuters)

But in the meeting Pelosi pushed back, arguing that an inquiry would undercut multiple ongoing House investigations.

Tellingly, as this was happening, Trump was shouting to a rally crowd in Pennsylvania that the FBI and Democrats are guilty of “treason,” vowing that Attorney General William P. Barr would investigate — that is, investigate his political opponents for invented crimes.

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The juxtaposition of these episodes neatly captures the dilemma: If Democrats fail to confront Trump’s lawlessness, will it only continue to expand into the vacuum?

One Democrat involved in the Monday debate was Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a constitutional law professor. I spoke to him, and a transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed, follows:

The Plum Line: Where are you as of this morning?

Rep. Jamie Raskin: I think that overwhelming evidence has been presented to us in the Mueller report, and outside of it too, of high crimes and misdemeanors, and we should launch an impeachment inquiry. Remember, an inquiry doesn’t prejudge the outcome. We’re not talking about articles of impeachment.

As a member of the Judiciary and Oversight committees, I do think the logic of an impeachment inquiry is pretty overwhelming at this point.

Plum Line: Is a majority of the caucus not on board yet?

Raskin: Hard to know, but this conversation is built into the committee system. Members of the Judiciary Committee are operating with detailed knowledge of the evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors spelled out in the Mueller report.

We are intimately familiar with the president’s aggressive obstruction of the congressional fact-finding function. So most of us have been led to the position that an impeachment inquiry is warranted.

Plum Line: What’s your response to the argument that an impeachment effort would hamstring other committees?

Raskin: Nothing in an impeachment inquiry would interfere in any way with other oversight investigations in other committees. It would just bring constitutional clarity to what some of the investigations are about.

On the Oversight Committee we’re investigating corruption at the Personnel Office with respect to the granting of security clearances. If it turns out there’s evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors there, it would be turned over to the Judiciary Committee. But [such] policy oversight needs to go forward regardless, because the handing out of security clearances to unqualified individuals is a grave matter.

The purpose of investigations into matters covered by the special counsel report at this point should be to determine whether or not the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Mueller wrote of 11 different episodes of presidential obstruction. More than 900 former U.S. attorneys and federal prosecutors have said that anybody else in America would have been indicted and prosecuted for what the president did.

So it’s very hard for the Judiciary Committee to look at this overwhelming evidence and not say there should be an inquiry into whether there were high crimes and misdemeanors.

Plum Line: What’s the danger of not doing it?

Raskin: In politics there are always risks of acting and risks of not acting. Why did the framers build the impeachment power into the Constitution? It’s there as the people’s last line of constitutional self defense against a president who tramples the rule of law and acts like a king.

If we don’t respond constitutionally to the evidence advanced by the special counsel, have we dramatically lowered the standards for presidential conduct?

Plum Line: I take it you reject the idea that the last line of defense for the American people is elections.

Raskin: That’s built into the system, and I am going to do everything in my power to make sure the elections restore democracy. But Mueller gave us pretty overwhelming evidence of the president’s obstruction of justice. The evidence came galloping off the pages of the report and into the halls of Congress. He now refuses to cooperate with any committee of Congress. He’s ordering his subordinates not to comply with subpoenas and not to appear as witnesses.

It’s a wholly unprecedented and sweeping obstruction of congressional powers.

What we have with the administration is a theory of executive power that’s essentially limitless and operates with impunity. The danger of constitutional inaction is that we invite ever more egregious departures from the rule of law and the Constitution.

If the president can get away with trying to kill a criminal investigation that involves him, then he’ll get the idea that he can go out and prosecute his real or imagined political enemies.

Plum Line: By not acting with constitutional clarity, the House creates a vacuum for Trump to expand his lawlessness. We’re seeing this both with Trump’s blanket refusal of all oversight requests, and with Trump telling his rally that the attorney general will investigate Democrats for treason.

Even if the Senate were to acquit, it’s still imperative that the House respond to those things and not allow that vacuum for lawlessness to be created?

Raskin: Who knows where it goes with him? What are the limits?

It goes back to the question: What is the rule of law? The framers knew what kings could do and what kings would do. The rule of law is meant to constrain the behavior of those in power.

Our caucus is unified around defending our democracy and the rule of law.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Democrats are badly blowing it against Trump. A brutal new TV ad shows how.

Greg Sargent: Republicans who don’t protect Trump’s corruption will pay a very steep price

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

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