Because American politics has the attention span of a coked-up guinea pig, being good at writing about politics these days mostly just means pointing to documented history or law, and sticking it next to recent news. History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme…and OK maybe it does repeat itself sometimes. Today officially marked the completion of an offense that we almost impeached Richard Nixon over (he resigned before the nail in his coffin could be driven in), and yet somehow, impeachment is still a debate on the left.
Trump has told the former top lawyer for the White House (the president’s lawyer, not Trump’s), Don McGahn, to defy congressional subpoenas, and today, McGahn complied with Trump’s unconstitutional demand. Per The Washington Post:
Former White House counsel Donald McGahn was a no-show Tuesday at a House committee hearing, infuriating Democrats who are ramping up calls to start impeachment proceedings against President Trump despite continued resistance from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
During an opening statement, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) vowed that his panel would eventually hear McGahn’s testimony about alleged obstruction of justice by Trump “even if we have to go to court to secure it.”
“We will not allow the president to block congressional subpoenas, putting himself and his allies above the law,” Nadler said. “We will not allow the president to stop this investigation, and nothing in these unjustified and unjustifiable legal attacks will stop us from pressing forward with our work on behalf of the American people. We will hold this president accountable, one way or the other.”
Now all I need to do to make my point is copy and paste this passage from Richard Nixon’s Articles of Impeachment, and voila!
In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, contrary to his oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas. The subpoenaed papers and things were deemed necessary by the Committee in order to resolve by direct evidence fundamental, factual questions relating to Presidential direction, knowledge or approval of actions demonstrated by other evidence to be substantial grounds for impeachment of the President. In refusing to produce these papers and things Richard M. Nixon, substituting his judgment as to what materials were necessary for the inquiry, interposed the powers of the Presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives, thereby assuming to himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives.
The Washington Post also reported today that Nadler and Dems in leadership on the House Judiciary Committee—the committee that would oversee impeachment—asked Speaker Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings. She rebuffed them and is becoming increasingly isolated on this subject. The reason why is because the constitution is clear on this: Congress has a mandate to oversee the executive, and the special counsel appointed by a DOJ who is required to report to Congress, asked Congress to consider its bounty of obstruction of justice evidence in an impeachment inquiry.
None of this is up for debate. This is how the constitution is supposed to work. Trump has committed impeachable offenses. Trump is committing impeachable offenses as we speak, and Chairman Jerry Nadler’s evolution from being squishy on impeachment to reportedly asking the Speaker of the House to initiate impeachment proceedings is emblematic of how clear this is all becoming. If Trump does not deserve to be impeached, then no president deserves to be impeached and the constitution is bunk. That is the message that Nancy Pelosi is ultimately communicating by placing (supposed) political expediency above her constitutional duty: politics is more important than our values. It’s almost Trumpian in its cold logic.
But is not impeaching Trump the “safe” move? It definitely carries real political risks. Americans are largely split, with polls showing either slightly in favor or slightly against impeachment, but the trend is moving more towards wanting to impeach a transparently criminal president. Democrats are in favor of impeaching Trump, but documented history also shows us that Democratic leadership does not usually prioritize the wishes of their base. This aversion to impeachment infecting Democratic leadership is all about playing from the same playbook of fear that has governed the Democratic Party for all of millennials’ lifetimes, and look where it got the party. Americans respect people who stand up for what they believe in, and that is part of the story as to why the Democrats have so little political power in this country.
The difference between the new age of Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the old guard of folks like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, is that the former works to shape public opinion towards outcomes they believe to be the best for everyone, and the latter reacts to public opinion. People like Chairman Nadler are now gravitating towards the new age of politics on this topic, and are advocating a serious attempt by the Democratic Party to lead on principle. When it comes to the cold logic of political expediency, this line of reasoning even has a good point to make. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll shows a wide opening on the subject of impeachment—as 13% do not know where they fall on this topic, and 45% approve versus 42% who disapprove of impeaching Trump.
The Democrats can market this and get at least half of that 13%, and perhaps some of the 42% against too. In fact, this is an easy sell.
All they need to do is point to the children that Trump separated from their parents and threw in cages where they are dying at rates never seen before, then say that Congress’s hands are tied and cite the constitution—specifically the Necessary and Proper Clause in Article I, Section 8—then finish by referring to this part of the Mueller Report:
“With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
One of the signature fights Democrats are going through right now is with congressional subpoenas, and the standard (or norm, if that helps the neoliberal wing of the party) was set on that topic in Nixon’s impeachment. It’s not that we should impeach Trump—it’s that we have no other choice but to impeach Trump. His lawlessness has driven us to this point, and if we are the nation we purport to be, then we will force him to defend impeachable actions going into 2020, and explain how his defiance of lawful subpoenas is any different from Nixon’s.
Of course after being impeached, Trump won’t get kicked out of office by Mitch McConnell’s Senate—removing Trump is not the point. It’s about demonstrating that the constitution still matters to one party, and by saying “I’m not for impeachment,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi is de facto agreeing with President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr’s Nixonian assertion that they are above the law.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.