Where exactly is the red line that, were Donald Trump to cross it, Congress would initiate impeachment proceedings?
No one knows because Democratic lawmakers never specified. Instead, they somehow believed — or counted on their constituents to believe — that the Mueller Report would clearly signal the answer, with either a green or red light.
And we still don’t know.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on May 23 that continuing House investigations “may take us to a place that’s unavoidable, in terms of impeachment. But we’re not at that place.” Where is that place? Only the speaker knows for sure, and it almost certainly has more to do with political expediency than any particular conduct that might be uncovered.
If attempting to undermine a legitimate investigation into whether a candidate for president collaborated with a foreign government to interfere in an election doesn’t constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, then what does? Just to restate some of the particulars: This president fired FBI Director James Comey because he refused to drop an investigation involving former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and then the president tried to pressure White House counsel Don McGahn to lie about his efforts to have the special counsel removed. If the findings in the Mueller Report don’t give the Democratic majority in the House enough to work with, what about the probe by Attorney General Robert Barr at the president’s relentless prodding into the origins of the 2016 investigation into Russian meddling in the election? Barr’s eagerness to do the president’s bidding clearly signals that the Justice Department and federal law enforcement apparatus has been repurposed from upholding the rule of law to punishing political enemies.
Democracy is a fragile set of shared principles and habits, and it will not survive long if those entrusted to lead fail to do their duty. If the executive has abused his power, then the legislative branch must remove him.
Before closing the special counsel’s office on Wednesday, Robert Mueller made it abundantly clear who holds responsibility to hold President Trump accountable if any wrongdoing has occurred. Citing a Justice Department opinion, Mueller said, “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
Win or lose: The House Democrats should lay out a case for impeachment, take a vote, let the chips fall where they may and then move on. By calculating that they would lose the House vote — or the Senate would decline to uphold impeachment, or voters might punish them in the next election — Democratic lawmakers are confirming their critics’ worst suspicions: that their interest in the Russia probe was motivated all along by desire to inflict maximum political damage rather than a commitment to preserve the institutions of democracy. If democracy is worth saving, then it’s worth more than winning the next election.
If the House does not act on compelling evidence that the president has undermined the integrity of the office, then the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling and Trump’s various misdeeds will appear no different than the Republicans’ endless investigations into Benghazi. It will be a show designed to feed new tidbits of information into breathless reporting on MSNBC and CNN, and sober reports by the New York Times, Washington Post and Politico.
As Democratic lawmakers squander their opportunity to take action, the Trump politics-entertainment complex is revving up its own show, with the parallel investigation into the origins of the Mueller Report, which will feed grist into a separate media ecosystem organized around Fox News, the Daily Caller and the conservative social-media universe to rev up the base for 2020.
The political calculations that Democratic and Republican lawmakers are making are not healthy for democracy, or for that matter their own long-term survival. If you have any doubts about the permanence of the reigning political class, just look at the recent European Parliament elections, where the center-left and center-right parties lost ground to the far right and the Green Party. The traditional constituencies in the United States enthralled by MSNBC and Fox News will not hold the center for long.
To the right of Fox News and the GOP, there are reactionary constituencies electrified by Trump’s accusations of “treason,” and frustrated that the system is not dispensing these supposed domestic enemies. They hunger for a more forceful and authoritarian government, under Trump’s leadership or perhaps under the firm hand of someone younger and more competent.
To the left of MSNBC and the Democratic Party, many progressive constituents have seen that the rule of law never protected the rights of people of color in the United States and that the instruments of policy have been so thoroughly corrupted by wealthy and corporate interests that they rarely work to lift up working and poor people. In the absence of a Democratic Party that stands for something and acts decisively, they will look to other political modes — perhaps grassroots democracy, or socialist authoritarianism, or anarchy, who knows — to achieve goals like ending police violence and mass incarceration, protecting black neighborhoods from gentrification, curbing climate change, healthcare for all and security against extremist violence.
It’s not as though by refraining from impeachment, Democratic lawmakers are guaranteeing that Trump won’t win re-election. What do they have to lose by standing on principle?