Donald Trump is no longer just a persistent object of national shame and revulsion. He has become a threat to the Constitution and the rule of law — and the question before the House, quite literally, is what to do about him.
For understandable reasons, the Democratic leadership in Congress has been reluctant to answer Trump's lawless conduct with impeachment, as the founders clearly prescribed. Speaker Nancy Pelosi warns that attempting to remove a duly elected president, even one who lost the popular vote, will be inevitably divisive and politically unpopular. She worries that "overreaching" by Democrats will rebound on them politically, as the Clinton impeachment boomeranged on Republicans in the 1998 midterm election.
And Pelosi warns that the Senate, dominated by the president's own party, almost certainly would refuse to convict Trump in an impeachment trial, no matter what damning evidence emerges against him. Unlike the Republicans of a bygone era, that party's present leaders will do nothing to discipline a lawless president, so long as he advances their desire to maintain power. Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who may understand the alarming truth in the Mueller Report but won't stand up to Trump, is a perfect example. Highlighting Romney's spineless servility by contrast is Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., a maverick conservative who has urged impeachment.
Neither Pelosi nor her concerns can be dismissed lightly. But the argument for opening an impeachment inquiry is more compelling every day, as Trump abrogates the constitutional order in an effort to conceal his crimes. A moment is rapidly coming when the failure to confront him will render Congress politically inert.
Trump's strategy, carried out by political appointees in the White House Office of Legal Counsel and Justice Department, is to obstruct every congressional inquiry by refusing to provide any information or testimony, with blatant disregard for the separation of powers. According to him and his lawyers, the president is essentially beyond oversight and above the law, which means they can disregard every subpoena with authoritarian bravado. Appealing to courts to uphold the Constitution will take time, which is on Trump's side.
Yet by officially opening an impeachment inquiry, Congress transforms itself from Trump's beggar into an institution with enhanced authority to demand documents and summon witnesses immediately. It is Trump's dictatorial misconduct that will force reluctant Democrats like Pelosi to use that power — their only chance to uphold the rule of law and constitutional order.
The political consequences of an impeachment inquiry — not a premature vote to remove Trump but a public inquest into his alleged offenses — may not be so dire anyway. In an "open memo" on impeachment published by JustSecurity.org, President Clinton's former aide Sidney Blumenthal shows that the most apt comparison is not the botched impeachment of his old boss, but the process that brought down Richard Nixon.
With polling data from those periods, Blumenthal demonstrates his point: Before impeachment, Clinton's approval rating stood at 66 percent; his public approval never wavered and still stood at 66 percent when the Senate acquitted him. Nixon's approval rating, as a newly reelected president who had won 49 states, stood at 68 percent before the Watergate scandal blew up. But his ratings fell as the facts about his crimes emerged in congressional hearings, although he was still above water politically when that process began. Only after a year of devastating public exposure, in the spring and summer of 1974, did public support for impeaching Nixon rise to the current level of public support for the impeachment of Trump.
Remember, Donald Trump is consistently the most unpopular president since modern polling began, even though he has lately enjoyed a blip upward. The most recent reliable poll on impeachment, compiled by Reuters/Ipsos, shows 45 percent believe that Trump should be impeached now, with 42 percent opposed. Other polls show that a majority believes Trump has committed serious crimes, an opinion recently ratified by 900 former federal prosecutors who signed a letter saying that if the president were an ordinary citizen, he would have been indicted for obstruction of justice based on the findings of Robert Mueller's investigation.
If the Democrats stand for anything, they must stand up for democracy against a would-be tyrant and his henchmen. The cost of doing the right thing may not be as high as they fear — and the risk of failing to do the right thing is already far too high and rising.
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