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Frum’s Arguments — the Good, the Bad, and the Uncertain — Against Impeachment

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Whether the United States will deal successfully with what is undoubtedly the most lawless President in American history is likely the most important political challenge our nation will face in our lifetime.

I’ve been a “hawk” on what’s needed for quite some time. (Indeed, as early as April of 2017,  I publicly challenged Bob Goodlatte, against whom I ran in 2012, for his dereliction of duty as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee in not conducting hearings to look into Trump’s threat to our constitutional order.)

And so I remain. I continue to argue for the Democrats to go all out against Trump, continue to fear the consequences of a failure to impeach, and continue to see the Democrats’ “characteristic error” as being timidity way more than over-aggressiveness.

But I recognize that I could be wrong in my judgments on how things would play out on one path or another, and when people whom I respect argue otherwise I pay attention.

One such person is David Frum. I know that he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and, as I see it, that counts strongly against him. But as I’ve heard him many times on MSNBC discussing this gathering crisis, Frum has impressed me as one of the most insightful and deepest thinkers out there.

(And Frum’s GOP background notwithstanding, there’s nothing lacking in his revulsion at the sight of Trump as President. One has no reason to doubt that Frum’s counsel against impeachment represents his best judgment about how Trump can best be defeated.)

So I read his recent piece in the Atlantic, titled “The Wisest Remedy is Not Impeachment,” with some interest. Frum makes several points– a couple of which seem worthy of pondering.

THE BAD

I’ll start with an argument he makes — one made by many people — that I really have difficulty crediting at all. So here’s what I view as the “bad” case:

A Trump facing impeachment will rally reluctant Republicans to him, with the argument, so effective for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Even if he did something wrong, it does not merit removal from office.

And an acquitted Trump will be an immunized Trump. Is it vexing to hear Trump’s team misrepresent Robert Mueller’s report as an “exoneration”? Imagine what they will say and do if they defeat impeachment on a party-line Senate vote. It was all fake news, a plot by the Deep State. As false and wrong as those claims will be, how will Democrats sustain the momentum to hold Trump to account after a trial and acquittal? Won’t they then have to submit to the jeers of Trump henchpersons: This issue was litigated, and it’s time to move on?

I just don’t see how anyone could see the case against Clinton and the case against Trump as the least bit comparable. Clinton’s conduct had nothing to do with his role as President, and constituted no threat to our constitutional order. Trump, by contrast, has been behaving like an autocrat. He’s been directly attacking the rule of law and the Constitution’s separation of powers and system of checks and balances.

If Trump’s crimes are many and dangerous — and they are — is there any reason to believe that a few months of hearings would fail to expose Trump in powerfully effective ways? And if the Democrats would be capable to showing Trump for the dangerous and atrocious would-be-dictator that he is, would it really be possible for Trump to emerge from a Senate acquittal “immunized,” able to claim “exoneration”?

I just don’t see it. As I’ve argued before, if the picture is well presented I would think any Republican vote to acquit would put them in political peril.

THE UNCERTAIN

Frum makes the point near the end of his piece that the Democrats can “reserve the impeachment remedy for the very genuine possibility of a Trump second term, by which time the Senate will likely have shifted more in the Democrats’ direction.”

That took me aback. I have always assumed that impeachment would have to be in this term or not at all. Frum has made me wonder: Would it really be possible to impeach Trump if he were re-elected?

My fear is that if the American people voted him back in, that would give Trump some kind of “immunization.” It could be argued — reasonably, I would think — that the American people had witnessed his conduct, had access to the Mueller Report, etc., and had nonetheless passed their judgment to acquit him through the 2020 election.

So I wonder: Is it actually a politically practical possibility to employ the impeachment tool after Trump would be elected to a second term?

THE GOOD (or at least maybe good)

The argument of Frum’s I found most interesting was one he made to counter

the case advanced by Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic:Only by authorizing a dedicated impeachment inquiry can the House begin to assemble disparate allegations into a coherent picture, forcing lawmakers to consider both whether specific charges are true and whether the president’s abuses of his power justify his removal.”

Interestingly, Frum turns that argument around:

Yet this very coherence could—and under present conditions likely will—undo itself. Right now Trump is fighting on many fronts to suppress many investigations of many different forms of alleged wrongdoing. He must plug more holes in the dike than he has fingers. But submerge all those many stories into one big question—“remove or don’t”—and the impeachers will have to focus their energy on the most salient allegations. The battlefront will narrow, and as it narrows, the unity of the executive branch will confer a tactical advantage on even a weak presidential defense over the fissiparous offense in the House of Representatives.

I’m not sure how that works. If the Judiciary Committee starts an impeachment process, what then happens to the investigations being conducted by the Intelligence Committee (under Schiff), the Oversight Committee (under Cummings), the Financial Services Committee (under Waters), the Ways and Means Committee (under Neal)?

Is there a way that they can all proceed in some synergistic way, feeding their results into the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry?

And as for the issues of coherence, and of “focus … on the most salient allegations,” what is the strongest presentation for exposing Trump’s unacceptable criminality to the American people?

Is it to Trump’s disadvantage, as Frum argues, for there to be more “holes in the dike than he has fingers”? Or does Trump benefit from having so many scandals at once that the American people cannot wrap their minds around so complex a picture, such that “coherence” and “narrowing” of issues is necessary for an effective presentation to the American people.

The task of how best to present the picture of Trump to the American people — whether through an impeachment process now, or an impeachment process later, or just a multiplicity of fact-finding missions — is not a simple one.

And I hope that the Democrats can find the strategic insight and dramatic compositional skills to bring it off well.