The world is full of catastrophe, along with a sense that dark clouds of impending recession are massing on the horizon. Congress, though, is on recess. The exception is the House Judiciary Committee, which has come back early, most prominently, to draft gun-control bills. It also continues its quiet, important work exploring whether the president of the United States should be impeached.
Despite the world’s turbulence, we all need to keep a steady focus now on how Congress answers the very precise, narrow questions that former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report put on the table.
First, did President Trump commit a crime? And if he did, is it a “high crime,” or is it instead a crime that we can overlook (such as joyriding) without damaging the rule of law and the Constitution? More specifically, did he commit or attempt to commit obstruction of justice — for an attempt would also be a crime.
Second, has the president met his constitutional requirement to exercise the powers of office “faithfully.” To understand the original meaning of “faithfully,” Mueller’s team cited a 1755 dictionary written by Samuel Johnson that defines the term as “strict adherence to duty and allegiance.”
These are legal questions. They are narrow and precise. Often, those who have come out for impeachment have instead used the sweeping argument that the president is unfit for office, as Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) did when he put forward articles of impeachment in July. The job, though, is to keep the focus on the narrow questions.
Impeachment was designed to address actions either already criminalized or prohibited by the Constitution. It is a process that puts decisions usually made by prosecutors and judges in the hands, respectively, of the House and Senate. We do not want our judicial mechanisms to be used for broad questions of whether someone is unfit for a particular role. Trump’s fitness for office, or lack thereof, is an important question, but it is for voters to decide.
In contrast, legal questions, such as those asked by the special counsel’s report, on the basis of a comprehensive review of the evidence, must be answered by those procedurally responsible for answering them: the members of the House of Representatives.
Happily, the House is moving forward with its constitutional obligations. The Judiciary Committee has publicly affirmed that it is conducting an impeachment inquiry. Last week, the committee subpoenaed Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Rick Dearborn, a former campaign aide and White House deputy chief of staff for policy, to give public testimony on Sept. 17, as the committee moves forward with its “investigation into obstruction, corruption and abuse of power by Trump and his associates.” The committee is asking the right questions — the narrow, legal ones.
Yes, these legal questions have political implications. What about those? If the House were to indict, through the procedure of passing articles of impeachment, is the Senate not unlikely to convict? And is there any probability of impeachment hearings reaching completion before the 2020 election? Indeed, it is unlikely that Trump would be removed from office by this process. That does not, though, erase Congress’s constitutional duty to complete the inquiry and decide whether the evidence requires an indictment in the form of articles of impeachment.
What hangs on this process is the all-important question of whether our laws and Constitution have any meaning. They have meaning only if we act on them. If we do not, our legal system ceases to have authority and legitimacy. If we care to consider obstruction of justice illegal, and if we care that presidents execute the laws faithfully, then we have no choice but to demand that the responsible officials bring this process to conclusion by rendering a legal judgment — not a political judgment — on whether the evidence requires impeachment.
If Congress can keep itself to narrow, legal questions, then the political consequences of this process will be minimal. Congress will have upheld the rule of law and receive credit for doing so. It will have left the question of fitness for office to voters and can say so clearly and emphatically.
What voters need is for the responsible party — the House of Representatives — to answer the legal questions now on the table.