Conventional wisdom on the left is jelling: President Trump deserves to be impeached. The only remaining questions are whether impeachment is tactically wise; and, if not, whether Congress is morally bound to proceed anyway.
That last would be a tough call — if the case for impeachment was in fact so clear. But tactics aside, there remains a principled case against a rush to impeach.
The strongest argument for impeachment may be that Trump is unfit for office. He lies; he divides; he flouts constitutional norms, embraces dictators and spews hateful rhetoric. He is ignorant and impetuous, temperamentally and philosophically unfit.
All true. In fact, our editorial board said as much when he was nominated in 2016. “Uniquely unqualified to serve as president,” we wrote. “A Trump presidency would be dangerous for the nation and the world.”
I think we’ve been proved right. But that is precisely the point: We thought his unfitness was evident before he was elected, and Americans chose him anyway. (No, he didn’t win the popular vote. But he won.) He is endangering the future of the planet — but we knew he was a climate denier. He ripped children from their parents at the border — but his racism and anti-immigrant animus, like his contempt for the Constitution, were no secrets.
To impeach him now for what the electorate welcomed or was willing to overlook isn’t the democratic response. The right response is to defeat him in 2020.
The second article of impeachment might be that Trump encouraged and benefited from foreign interference in the 2016 election. This, too, is unforgivable. But, again, the broad outlines were known before the election — he invited Russia’s help, he crowed about WikiLeaks’ publication of stolen Democratic emails — and, again, he was elected anyway.
What about his refusal since the election to admit the obvious truth about Russian assistance or to defend the nation against future attack? What about his cozying up to the chief perpetrator, Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Disgusting, and suspicious.
But before impeaching on this ground you would also have to consider his administration’s policy. U.S. Cyber Command has been staffed up, and a warning cyber operation was launched against Russia before the 2018 midterms. Sanctions imposed for Russia’s occupation of part of Ukraine remain in place, and Ukraine was provided with defensive weapons. Not enough has been done, but the government hasn’t been inert, either.
The same disconnect between rhetoric and action exists on the question of obstruction of justice. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III laid out 10 episodes of potential obstruction, and they paint a damning portrait.
But they can’t obscure a couple of basic facts: Mueller found no underlying crime that would explain an attempt to obstruct; and Trump in the end did not prevent Mueller from completing his work.
Yes, Trump told his lawyer to fire Mueller; but then-White House counsel Donald McGahn didn’t do it, and Trump didn’t follow through — though he could have. Yes, Mueller makes clear that obstruction is possible as a criminal charge without an underlying crime, and many former prosecutors say they see indictable crimes in the second volume of his report. But Trump, though he refused to testify, allowed the report to be completed and allowed it to be (mostly) shared with Congress. Are we going to impeach a president for wanting to obstruct?
The next article might encompass Trump’s overweening use of executive power. But given that Congress could have barred the repurposing of funds for the wall and chose (by not overriding a Trump veto) not to; could reclaim the power that it has ceded to the president to make trade policy or sell weapons to dictators, and chooses not to — this might be a difficult claim for Congress to sustain with a straight face.
Trump is taking his contempt of Congress to new levels now by refusing to acknowledge any legitimate congressional oversight role. His recalcitrance is being challenged in court; if he loses and still refuses to cooperate, impeachment might well be the only response left to Congress, and the right one.
In the meantime, Congress is duty-bound to continue investigating the president’s misdeeds and abuses of power. If consolidating that effort in one impeachment inquiry would make it more coherent, and would strengthen the House’s standing in court, it should do so. Maybe a persuasive case for impeachment will take shape; none of these are easy calls.
But Trump should not be impeached for inclinations, no matter how vile, that were not acted upon. He should not be impeached out of frustration with the pusillanimous failure of Republicans in the House and Senate to stand up for congressional prerogative and constitutional norms.
And Congress should think very hard before impeaching Trump for the high crime of being who we knew he was before we elected him.