The paradox of impeachment
Congress' attempts to protect the Constitution from the president may drastically increase the threat he poses to it
The impeachment of President Trump is both necessary and, possibly, a disaster in the making.
For a lesson in how both of these things can be true at once, let's look at this series of tweets the president fired off over the weekend:
There is so much wrong and frightening in these tweets, but let us focus on the most alarming idea: that congressional oversight of the president amounts to an act of treason, and that holding Trump accountable for his official actions is a crime punishable by death. This is not a one-off: Trump has frequently floated the idea that investigations of his conduct are treasonous. Just last week he suggested that the still-anonymous whistleblower who triggered the impeachment drive against him should be executed. (CBS reported Sunday the whistleblower is now under federal protection.) A key theme of Trump's entire presidency, in fact, has been the effort to declare "illegal" many of the quite-legal methods used to keep him in bounds.
He is the president of the United States. He consistently makes such pronouncements. We must take his words and ideas seriously.
Doing so results in a paradox. First, it makes his impeachment a pressing requirement — Trump's ignorance of and contempt for the Constitution as a document that in any way restrains his behavior is a fundamental violation of his oath of office. Second, it forebodes that the impeachment process could be a disaster, with the president making every effort to destroy the people and institutions holding him to account. In other words, Congress' attempts to protect the Constitution from the president may drastically increase the threat he poses to it.
It is a hellish Catch-22. But it cannot be avoided.
There are, of course, many voices urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to turn back. In the week since the impeachment inquiry was announced, it has become almost conventional wisdom that Trump should be investigated and removed from office — but that the effort to do so might actually entrench him in the White House and, at the very least, produce an electoral setback for Democrats.
"Yes, Trump is guilty, but impeachment is a mistake," New York Times columnist David Brooks opined last week.
"If this is the risk Pelosi wants to take with swing voters," commented Brooks' colleague, Bret Stephens, "Republicans will be happy to let her take it."
They join any number of pundits who also argue that Democrats will pay a huge price for their impeachment efforts. It is a frustrating notion, akin to calling 911 and telling the dispatcher your house is ablaze, but you'd prefer firefighters stay away, lest they make things worse.
Unfortunately, the pundits might be right. But Democrats should proceed anyway.
Impeachment, as experts have pointed out forever, is a political act. But it isn't just a political act. Impeachment is the method by which Congress can sweep aside corruption in favor of justice. To abandon that constitutional tool just because the president threatens a tantrum is to abandon the very idea of America — and its government — as a beacon for the rule of law. It means we are ruled by a vandal.
If that is the case — if America's commitment to good, fair, and honest governance has become so hollow and untrustworthy that it must surrender to the president's temper just to pretend to survive — then it is time to find out. The information we have so far overwhelmingly suggests Trump welcomed foreign interference to gain office, has then used the office to enrich himself, and now stands accused of using the power of that office to attempt to punish and undermine political rivals. It might be convenient for Democrats to ignore all of that, but it wouldn't be right.
There are reasons for hope. Republicans might stick by Trump's side no matter what, but the latest polls show that a majority of Americans favor the impeachment inquiry. It is, however, early in the process. Predicting the end of the ride is a fool's game. It may be the case that critics are ultimately correct. Maybe impeachment will be a disaster.
But the alternative — accepting that we are a nation that allows naked corruption to reign, a nation where we even applaud that corruption and call it virtue — is worse. Trump represents the worst that America has to offer. Impeachment is the surest way to discover if America can still summon its best self.
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