Last week, Democrats officially regained control of the House of Representatives, and thanks in large part to Trump’s mind-blowing incompetence—which seems somehow to expand by the day—it appears increasingly clear that Nancy Pelosi has effectively taken control of the government. To understate it, Democrats get a lot out of this, namely the ability to block the nastiest of the GOP’s efforts to suppress votes, choke Obamacare, put the screws to marginalized communities, further crank up taxes on the poor to pass on to corporations, restrict access to women’s healthcare, etc etc. Democrats also gained control of committees, which means they can do constructive things such as introduce liberal legislation, but they can also go on the attack and do things such as subpoena Trump’s taxes, subpoena former administration officials to testify, subpoena Trump Organization financial records, subpoena a mysterious blocked phone number widely believed to belong to Trump that his son called while setting up the Trump Tower meeting, etc etc.
They also have the option, theoretically, to impeach him. Last week Pelosi called impeachment “divisive,” but implied they’d go ahead with it given “the facts.” Presumably she meant when the facts of Trump’s crimes emerge in a court of law, which is almost guaranteed to happen on about six different fronts.
So yeah, of course Trump should be yanked out of office as soon as possible. But the Democrats might then run the risk of being jerked around themselves, painted relentlessly as divisive and vindictive and possibly drawing enough voter resentment in 2020 to cost them representation or even the presidential election. The question, then, is even though Democrats can impeach Trump, would it be smart?
In short: Yes. In long:
The first question, obviously: Has Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses?
The Constitution instructs the House of Representatives to base impeachment charges on the standards from Article II, Section 4:
The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.
But what are “high crimes and misdemeanors”? It’s pretty fuzzy. The phrase covers a wide range of malfeasance, including abuse of power, dereliction of duty, obstruction of justice, refusal to obey a lawful order, chronic intoxication, and, yes, tax evasion. (The Senate’s first impeachment conviction—against a federal judge in 1804—was for chronic intoxication.) Unfortunately the constitution doesn’t lay this out, but, counterintuitively, that omission actually implies the framers wanted to leave the interpretation open for all sorts of terrible behavior. Some Founding Fathers have commented on it. James Madison, for instance, called impeachment an “indispensable” remedy to “the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” And Alexander Hamilton said impeachable offenses “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” He also said specifically that such offenses could be political in nature, “as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Before we go further, it’s pretty obvious—if we’re being at all intellectually honest—that Trump commits impeachable offenses on the reg. And if you don’t want to get into subjective interpretation, many of these appear to be statutory criminal offenses. As long as the articles of impeachment don’t rest on frivolous charges (as we saw with Bill Clinton, but more on that later), Pelosi and the Democrats should definitely go ahead with the impeachment process.
Besides, even if we took the narrowest definition of “crime,” the president has already been mentioned (“Individual 1”) in multiple federal court filings, and his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen has named Trump as having directed him to commit crimes. The Mueller investigation continues apace, and it seems all but certain Trump will face some level of charges for obstruction of justice, and probably for money laundering and conspiracy against the United States too.
Trump also faces legal trouble on six fronts outside the Mueller investigation. Six. Two separate New York state investigations (into the Trump Foundation and Trump’s own tax evasion), a federal investigation into the Trump Organization’s financial dealings with the Inaugural Committee, an emoluments lawsuit, the New York federal investigation into campaign finance violations (in the form of last-minute hush payments to a porn star and former Playmate), and a sleeper case—a sexual assault and defamation suit brought by Summer Zervos.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of the constitution specifying “bribery.” And let’s be honest: Trump has with near certainty conspired with Russian agents against the United States in an effort to steal an election and subvert our democracy. Who knows what other crimes will out over the coming months?
This is all to say that the constitutional case for impeachment—that the president committed high crimes/misdemeanors—is, based on the Cohen case alone, a lock. But if and when the other evidence emerges, it would be politically stupid for Democrats not to impeach. For instance, the House could conclude, and provide to the public, evidence from its own investigation that Trump obstructed justice. This is a lock.
Which brings us to…
How bad could it possibly be for Democrats? The GOP would frame them as divisive, and given their fondness for irrationality, probably even as traitors. Would this make a real difference?
In truth, very few Democrats, if any, would lose their seat solely because they voted to impeach Trump. Possibly some Obama-Trump voters who turned recently against Trump might be persuaded to turn back against the Democratic bogeymen, in the way they had Hillary Clinton to hate in 2016. But they don’t have Clinton to push around anymore. However, there is a real worry here, in that the dirty debate—and most certainly the vote to impeach—might very well rip the country apart. It’s a horrible mistake, though, to blame the victim and chalk up any further division to Democrats, who would be acting on their constitutional duty against the most divisive American politician in memory. The blame belongs with Trump, not on any effort to remove him, which, given how he and his movement have driven us apart, is if anything a step back towards unity—even if no one will acknowledge that truth.
Also, if you believe it’s stupid to impeach because it would alienate middle-of-the-road voters, there’s an equal and opposite argument that not impeaching Trump runs the risk of alienating Democrats. Given Trump’s blatant, revolting, and anti-democratic behavior—which interpretations of impeachment law clearly cover—I for one would not vote for any incumbent who cowered from impeachment in the name of political expedience. Given the ferocity of the #resistance, such gutlessness could split the party.
This, of course, becomes more of a risk as more evidence against Trump emerges. Which brings up another concern.
There’s an important distinction between invoking the impeachment process and the final vote to impeach. They have distinct political consequences. So, first question to answer: Which one are we talking about here?
First, it’s unclear which of these things Pelosi was referring to when she said they’d have to wait on “facts” before considering impeachment. (That ambivalence was probably on purpose.) She does understand, though, that the impeachment process is designed to bring such facts to light, so presumably she’d support that.
Impeachment isn’t just the vote. Specifically, it’s an investigation and a sort of political prosecution, for lack of a better phrase. Articles of impeachment trigger the investigations, which in turn lead to public exposition of the evidence, as well as to public debate on the House floor.
Obviously this process would be less “divisive” than the vote itself, and if that process comes up short in the evidence department, Democrats don’t have to vote to impeach. And indeed, in the (unlikely) event the evidence against Trump doesn’t cut it, it would definitely not be smart to vote to impeach. But it doesn’t seem reasonable to believe such investigations would come up short. In fact, it’s difficult if not impossible to say at this point whether an impeachment vote would be politically stupid, because an investigation would publish evidence, and if we take the narrow definition of “crime,” it would likely be evidence we the people don’t yet have.
But, again, we already have evidence. I mean, just read his Twitter feed.
Look. The man is undeniably unfit for office. Officials in his own administration understand this probably better than anyone. He’s incompetent, derelict in duty, poses an active threat to the first amendment (and relishes it), and is actively corroding the fabric of the nation. “High crimes and misdemeanors” clearly cover this. Then you have the “crime” crimes.
In other words, there’s a virtually endless well of evidence to draw from in defense of a vote to impeach. Assuming the impeachment debate goes forward in the House, Democrats could drop it all. And if Democrats choose to launch the process, as Pelosi suggested was possible, the GOP faces a choice: Defend Trump or abandon him. They already have a hard time explaining away the affairs and hush payments with any sort of coherence or moral continuity. He’s undeniably insane and his crimes are serious. Should more “facts” come out, no one in the GOP, outside of some of the fringiest of the fringe jackals, would defend outright crimes. It’s even more of a stretch in that scenario that Democrats would pay any price at the ballot box.
That’s not totally hypothetical. We have a case study.
In the late 90s, the GOP, then helmed by Newt Gingrich, clowned its way through the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the House of Representatives. Just like today, there was zero chance the Senate would ever have convicted, but still he persisted. Further, in comparison to the charges Trump would face, the charges against Clinton were absurd. He committed perjury because he lied under oath about an affair. That affair only came to light after three years of a special prosecutor investigation into a shady real estate deal. Clinton was impeached four years and 11 months after that investigation began.
Did the GOP pay the price for this stunt? No. George Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, in no small part because Gore couldn’t shake the Lewinsky affair and impeachment. So one lesson here is that partisan impeachment, no matter how frivolous, isn’t guaranteed to draw adverse political consequences.
In the end, though, who cares if it’s smart? Who cares if it succeeds? Who cares if Democrats pay a price at the polls, even an improbably steep one? It’s simply the right thing to do, and moreover it’s a constitutional obligation.
If Democrats shirk their duty here—the most extreme, clear-cut, slam-dunk case for impeachment imaginable (to date)—the impeachment power means nothing. The only meaningful check on the presidency (assuming a sitting president cannot be indicted) would dissolve. They would betray the core of our constitution, which was designed primarily to prevent the rise of an out-of-control, criminal demagogue. They’d have no claim to any moral ground, they’d continue to allow the most reprehensible fraction of the country to hold them hostage, they’d contribute to that right-ward drift, they’d split their own party, they would as victims of these divisive abuses be accepting the blame for them, and they’d have no right to complain ever again.
Worst of all, though, if Democrats refuse to impeach Donald Trump, they would give tacit assent to the most rotten and flagrant criminality in our government, as long as that criminality and assent are politically expedient. We can’t set that precedent, and we can’t leave that legacy. Our example for our children, for the future leaders of the country, can’t be that in the face of losing whatever hope we had left to an ugly, amoral, corrupt, stupid, and sociopathic bully, we didn’t even try.