Todd Stern was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and special envoy for climate change under President Barack Obama.
Eight weeks after the release of the redacted Mueller report, the central question of whether to open a formal impeachment inquiry remains unanswered, with the vitality of our democracy at a crossroads.
The pillars of that democracy are a strong Congress, a vibrantly free press, an independent judiciary, law enforcement without political manipulation and a foundational commitment to the truth. President Trump is attacking every one of these pillars repeatedly, forcefully and with malice aforethought.
Yet Democrats stand divided and unsure on the impeachment question, unwilling to act while faced with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s opposition. The speaker is enormously able, a hero in our party. But she is not infallible. And, in my view, she is wrong now. Democrats ought to open an impeachment inquiry without delay.
As a threshold matter, it appears that Trump has committed a variety of impeachable offenses. Obstruction of justice is the most obvious, because the Mueller report lays out a withering case of criminal obstruction, and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III himself made clear he didn’t consider such a case only because of Justice Department guidance against indicting a sitting president. More than 1,000 former prosecutors, Democrats and Republicans, have declared in a petition that Trump would have been indicted on multiple obstruction counts if he were not not president. A partial list of other grounds for impeachment would include Trump’s failure to protect the United States against foreign attacks on our electoral system, his blanket refusal to comply with lawful congressional subpoenas, his attempt to prosecute political enemies, and his welcoming, benefiting from and rewarding of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
The speaker and her leadership team have sought to defend their refusal to open an impeachment inquiry on several grounds, but none of them adds up. They have said we need to hold investigative hearings first to gather more information, but the truth is that we know more than enough already from the Mueller report and Trump’s public conduct to begin an impeachment inquiry now. Such a formal inquiry would put the House in the best possible position to defeat Trump’s effort to block access to documents and witnesses, because Congress’s constitutional impeachment power is undisputed. Suggesting we don’t know enough yet only sends a misleading message to the public.
The speaker has also said impeachment would be divisive, so we shouldn’t move forward unless there are enough Senate Republicans to convict. But if divisiveness were a ground for taking a pass on impeachment, this essential safeguard would wither on the vine. And since when do strong, proud, able Democrats seek approval from the other side before acting on a matter of crucial constitutional, moral and political consequence?
The House leadership team has also said Trump is goading us into impeachment because it’s just what he wants politically. But his own words belie this theory; They are a tell. Speaking to reporters outside the White House on May 30, he described impeachment as “dirty, filthy, disgusting.” Those words occupy the last rung of Trump’s phobic hell.
Most recently, the speaker has said she wants to see Trump in prison, not impeached — meaning beat him next year and then indict. But this is a silly attempt to show toughness. Whether Trump ever goes to prison is beside the constitutional and political point. He is unfit for office. He has abused his power. He has violated his oath. The Constitution affords the remedy. Talk about prison is a distraction.
The real reason the House leadership is ducking impeachment is almost surely politics. Some say polls argue against impeachment, but polls mean little when the vast majority of people have neither read the Mueller report nor absorbed what it says from in-depth reporting. What the public has heard is the Trump team celebrating exoneration while the Democrats seem uncertain and conflicted. Polls will change if we move forward with an impeachment inquiry, just as they did during Watergate, when support for impeachment rose from 19 percent to 57 percent, per Gallup, within 14 months of the time impeachment hearings began.
In short, the time of reckoning is upon us. Of course, there are risks in moving forward, but the risks of not doing so are greater. Taking into account principle, precedent and politics, the House should open an impeachment inquiry, upholding its separate but equal power to do its sworn duty. Now is a moment for clarity, toughness and spine. History is watching.