Impeachment isn't meant to win votes
Democrats need to put their constitutional duty ahead of any political fears
On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives will proceed with a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Pelosi's decision comes in response to the news that Trump tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden's son, just the latest in a long list of allegations of wrongdoing by Trump.
That revelation broke last week. Yet up until Tuesday morning, Pelosi remained committed to letting voters remove Trump from office in 2020 rather than using her own powers to launch a formal impeachment process. Pelosi's about-face, then, is now being chalked up, both by media outlets and House members, to Trump's infractions having reached a "tipping point."
"No one is above the law," Pelosi said in making her announcement on Tuesday. But it's worth considering how much unlawfulness Trump has been able to carry out before finally provoking a Democratic response. Whatever relief Americans now have that a formal impeachment process against Trump has finally begun ought still to be balanced against the recognition of how long it took Democrats to act and what it all means for the state of American democracy in 2019.
No doubt, the impeachment of a president is a serious matter that should never be taken lightly. The fact that this will be only the fourth time in history that the House of Representatives have drawn up formal impeachment proceedings against a president speaks to how sparingly this measure ought to be used. And in thinking about how Republicans would have handled a Hillary Clinton presidency, especially knowing that GOP members were setting plans in place even before the 2016 election to impeach Clinton should she have won, Pelosi's slow-walking to this moment could be viewed not as feckless hesitation but as admirable restraint.
But Trump is no normal president, and these are not regular times. And while the revelation that Trump, yet again, encouraged a foreign power to intervene in a U.S. election on his behalf and manipulated congressionally-approved taxpayer funds in doing so offers a clear and damnable offense that most Americans will easily understand as unconstitutional, the delay in waiting to this late moment to move against the president has set dangerous precedents and weakened the American system.
That's not the conventional wisdom in Washington. Even as Trump racked up one impeachable offense after another — from his conflicts of interest that violate the Constitution's emoluments clause to his attempts to obstruct justice as detailed by the Mueller report to his cozying up to murderous dictators while undermining his own foreign intelligence agencies to his brutally cruel family separation policy, not to mention his abject and debased character — politicians and pundits alike have contended that impeachment is not a good move for Democrats politically.
It's true that impeachment is a political process, and House Democrats, including Pelosi, are right to weigh impeachment prospects against the political damages it may cause their party. It's not wrong to imagine Trump's supporters will rally around him more fervently as the investigation continues. But principles have to count for more than electoral results when matters are this grave.
Reportedly, Pelosi has resisted earlier entreaties to initiate impeachment proceedings because she didn't want to jeopardize moderate Democrats' election prospects in swing districts. But what is the point of retaining a majority if that majority doesn't want to do anything about a president shredding the Constitution right before them? Americans have rightly chastised spineless Republicans like senators Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse for their tepid protestations about some of the president's actions while doing nothing to stop them. Surely Democrats putting their political prospects ahead of Constitutional principles is just as condemnable as Republicans doing the same?
In the end, Trump being reelected without ever having faced an impeachment inquiry would be a far worse consequence for American democracy than his winning reelection after having been impeached by the House. It's impossible to know how the 2020 election will shake out. What is known is that an impeachment inquiry against Trump draws a clear line in the sand, affirming and asserting Constitutional standards and the rule of law at a time when both are under assault from the White House.
Trump likely won't be removed from office by impeachment; the Republican-controlled Senate will assuredly not allow that. But, especially if Trump wins again in 2020, his impeachment by the House will provide a powerful rebuke and a reassertion of democratic norms, an essential expression in these troubled times. Nearly as important, moving forward with impeachment proceedings should stiffen Democrats' resolve to resist Trump and not just pass that responsibility on to voters.
With that duty in mind, House Democrats ought to keep the scope of their inquiry as wide as possible, hammering the president on all his failings. On Wednesday afternoon, Pelosi told Democrats she wanted their impeachment inquiry narrowly focused on Trump's phone calls with Ukraine, yet another disappointing reminder of the speaker's excessive cautiousness.
It is also a failure of opportunity. As has often been pointed out, impeachment is not a criminal trial where prosecutors construct an air-tight case against the defendant. Instead, it is a sort of political theater, one best served, especially with a president as corrupt as this one, by overwhelming the proceedings — and, thereby, the national conversation — with the full range of Trump's illegal and unpatriotic activities.
Trump has already confessed to this crime. Trying to nail him on just his talks with Ukraine misses the chance to indict Trump on the entire extent of his crimes, not only for its political consequences now but for the records of history. In her Tuesday statement, Pelosi invoked the nation's founders as a guide for our present circumstances. Recognizing this historic moment, Democrats must make the full case against Trump.
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