Politics is an odd profession. Usually it involves the posturing inherent to partisanship and the self-abasement of endless fundraising. But, occasionally, it entails the most solemn duties of self-government — decisions that echo across the decades.
Members of the House of Representatives now face this kind of resonant choice.
The Mueller report details a criminal plot by a hostile foreign government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor by encouraging racial and social division, and by releasing stolen emails. When Trump and his team learned about a major element of this operation — the part involving hacked emails — they did not take this information to the FBI. Instead, they publicly and privately welcomed Russian efforts. While this did not rise legally to the level of a conspiracy, the report shows that Trump and members of his campaign team were willing — actually, eager — to cooperate with Russian attempts to subvert a presidential election.
The Mueller report also reveals that Trump repeatedly ordered subordinates to lie about their ties to the Russians and to interfere with the investigation of those contacts. After making a strong case that the president obstructed justice, the report refuses to assign criminal responsibility. But it is careful to say: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”
In the face of all this, the president has both dismissed the report as a partisan hit job and claimed to be completely vindicated by it. Both are lies. But Trump has successfully enlisted the attorney general to provide cover for those deceptions, which has given the president clear advantages while emptying William P. Barr’s store of professional reputation.
So how have the institutions of our public life responded to this attack on the integrity of the electoral process? They have engaged in a great chain of punting. The Mueller report places primary responsibility on Congress to deal with issues such as this. And the leadership of the House has put primary emphasis on the role of voters in the 2020 election to deliver a public repudiation to the president. Everyone in government conveniently escapes direct duties.
This attitude is rooted in political realism. The president could probably polarize an impeachment battle in ways favorable to his reelection by convincing his supporters that an actual coup was underway. Trump was clearly prepared in the 2016 election to claim that any unfavorable outcome was the result of voter fraud. He would have no problem arguing that any unfavorable outcome on impeachment would constitute a putsch. No matter the cost to U.S. democracy.
Recognizing this reality should also depress us. If true, this constitutes a concession that the designated authorities of our federal government have lost the ability to play their proper role in balancing abuses of power by the president. In this case, political realism is also institutional surrender. Or at least the admission of impotence.
The failure of the House of Representatives to play its proper role would effectively be an invitation to foreign governments to interfere in future U.S. elections. If these outside forces succeed — getting the outcome they desire — there are not likely to be any consequences from the government they helped install.
The failure of U.S. institutions to prevent electoral subversion sends a dramatically destructive moral message. Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has claimed that “there’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” When challenged about the unethical nature of getting help from nations that wish our country harm, he answered, “We’re going to get into morality?” So far, Trump and his team have successfully avoided a moral reckoning.
But the main reason this surrender is so damaging relates to our form of constitutional government. America’s founders feared outside influence in U.S. elections for the most practical of reasons: because open, democratic electoral systems are particularly vulnerable to the manipulation of outside forces. And failure to punish such intrusion undermines democratic legitimacy.
It is indeed likely that elected Republicans would fail to defend constitutional values if tested by an impeachment vote. But they should be tested nonetheless. The honor of the presidency now depends on the actions of Congress. Beginning with a thorough series of coordinated hearings, House leaders should lay the groundwork for impeachment — and at least delay the surrender of our institutions to cynicism.