Opinion

Democrats shouldn't try to impeach Trump — yet

It's still too soon

Donald Trump is a bad man and a bad president, a "leader" whose main redeeming quality appears to be that he's too lazy and undisciplined to effectively implement all of his cruel and anti-democratic ideas. The sooner he leaves office, the better off Americans will be.

But Democrats should hold off impeaching him — for now.

There was a flowering of impeachment talk over the weekend, after prosecutors not-so-indirectly accused Trump of committing a felony. The crime? Violating campaign finance laws during his presidential campaign by directing hush-money payments to porn stars he'd allegedly slept with.

Game, set, and match, right?

"Certainly, they're impeachable offenses," Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee said on Sunday. "Even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office."

But he added that just because you can impeach a president doesn't mean you should.

"They would be impeachable offenses," Nadler said. "Whether they're important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question."

The answer to that question is no.

I'll spare you the lecture on how impeachment is a political process. Instead, I'll offer two criteria for impeachment in the case of President Trump: First, the offense must be clear-cut and worthy of his removal from office. Second, the impeachment must stand a good chance of leading to that outcome.

According to documents filed Friday in the case of Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, the offense committed by the president boils down to this: By covering up his affairs, he pulled a fast one on the American people.

"He did so by orchestrating secret and illegal payments to silence two women who otherwise would have made public their alleged extramarital affairs with Individual-1," prosecutors wrote, referring to Trump. "In the process, Cohen deceived the voting public by hiding alleged facts that he believed would have had a substantial effect on the election."

The problem? Trump entered the 2016 election as a known sleazebag — a man who bragged about his sex life in the New York tabloids, who had appeared in softcore pornography, and who was known for telling an interviewer that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases was his own "personal Vietnam." And that was before the Access Hollywood tape revelations. By the time the election came about, Americans had a pretty good idea that Trump had a past as, at the very least, a sexual libertine.

Did anybody truly think otherwise? Was anybody truly defrauded because additional evidence of Trump's infidelities failed to reach the public until later?

It actually seems plausible that Trump was hushing up news of his affairs because he wanted to save his marriage. If so, that wouldn't be a campaign finance violation, and the case for impeachment based on Friday's document dump seems weaker.

Does the marriage defense sound familiar? It should. Former President Bill Clinton used it to explain why he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors," Clinton said in his infamous August 1998 speech to the nation. "First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also very concerned about protecting my family."

An impeachment based on Trump's infidelities would offer up another similarity to the late 1990s: Remember, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation began as an inquiry into whether Trump and his associates colluded with Russian during the 2016 campaign — nobody was talking about porn stars at the outset. Similarly, Clinton's scandal was the outgrowth of investigations into a failed land deal involving the Clintons prior to his presidency.

Democrats who have spent the last two decades grumbling that Clinton was impeached based on private infidelities, then, have two choices based on Friday's sentencing documents: Stand on principle, or get even.

There's a practical reason for standing on principle: House Democrats could successfully impeach Trump after they take the majority in a few weeks, but the GOP will still hold the Senate, which must conduct a trial on any impeachment claims approved by the House. Senate Republicans have so far proven protective of Trump, and they simply have to point to the Clinton precedent — he was acquitted by the Senate — and move on. Impeachment will have ended up much ado about nothing.

So, for now, it's best that Democrats keep their powder dry.

Here's the good news for impeachment-minded Trump opponents: Friday's revelations are hardly the last word on any offenses the president and his associates might have committed. Mueller has played this investigation close to the vest — it's a good bet there are more revelations to come. And newly-empowered House Democrats have their own investigations to conduct. This process isn't over.

So be patient, Dems. It's not time to impeach the president. But the day may come soon.

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