This piece lately ran in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06).
The issue of presidential impeachments in our times demonstrates how, in their natures, America’s two major political parties have become polarized opposites.
The Republican Party – which grew into the party that makes a fight over everything, even when the nation needs cooperation – launched an uncalled-for impeachment in 1998 against President Clinton. (“Uncalled-for” because Clinton’s offenses did not bear upon his presidential role, and thus did not threaten the integrity of the constitutional order).
Whereas the Democratic Party – which became a party that habitually shrunk from fighting over anything, even when the nation needed the battle to be fought – are now fearful about launching an impeachment clearly more necessary than any in American history.
It’s true, the Democrats have some basis for those fears.
On the one hand, the Mueller Report lays out a strong “bill of impeachment” in all but name. As Senator Elizabeth Warren aptly summarized the truth Mueller reveals:
- “A hostile foreign government attacked our 2016 election to help Donald Trump.”
- “Donald Trump welcomed that help.”
- “Once elected, Donald Trump obstructed the investigation into that attack.”
That conduct is clearly of such seriousness that the congressional oath of office essentially requires impeachment. Whether it is politically advantageous or not. As a “point of principle,” as Senator Warren says.
But on the other hand, only 39% of the American people presently favor impeachment. And the Democrats fear getting ahead of the voters.
At the same time, the Democrats have also been (only partially) roused from their characteristic timidity by the extreme lawlessness of this current lawless President. And so, not wanting to abdicate their responsibilities, they’ve come up with a sensible strategy for dealing with their potentially perilous position. Namely, they’re seeking to side-step for now the issue of impeachment while conducting – through public hearings — a kind of first trial in “the court of public opinion.”
Understandably, the great majority of the citizenry will need something more than some 400+ page, dense legal document (like Mueller’s Report). The thought is that through televised hearings, with the American public hearing from actual human witnesses — as was done with the famous Watergate hearings — Americans can come to see the picture the Mueller Report paints and support what must be done.
But Trump and his allies have mounted a bold, all-out effort to prevent that process of public education from unfolding. This effort has had two main components.
First, there’s the extraordinary – and grossly deceptive – role that has been played by Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General, William Barr. The moment the Mueller’s Report was released would and should have been impactful, but Barr did everything he could to blunt that impact, replacing Mueller’s damning findings with his own false narrative.
(It has lately been disclosed that Special Counsel Mueller has strongly objected to how Barr, while holding back the Report and refusing to make public the summaries prepared by the Mueller team for immediate release to Congress and to the public, released his own letter which did not “capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” that created “public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” and thus threatened “to undermine a central purpose … : to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”)
It remains to be seen whether the public’s understanding of what Mueller was attempting to tell the American people will ever fully recover from the initial false narrative AG Barr put into the public mind.
The second aspect of the Trump strategy to block the Democrats’ campaign of public education has been a brazen, across-the-board effort to block Congress’s access to all witnesses and all documents. Trump is trying to block testimony even from people no longer in government, and trying to block financial institutions from responding to congressional subpoenas.
Even if these efforts are altogether without legal merit, they might succeed. That’s because their goal is not to win in court but to run out the clock. The Democrats’ goal is to bringing the truths of the Mueller Report to life for the American people as quickly as possible. But any substantial delay in that process helps this President keep himself above the law.
It remains to be seen how soon the Democrats will be able to bring the truth in front of the American people. Thus it remains to be seen whether Trump can succeed in protecting himself from Congress’s lawful powers, and more generally from the rule of law.
(One ironic possibility is that his across-the-board refusal to cooperate will compel the Democrats to take that step they fear to make, and wish at least to postpone: namely, to initiate an impeachment process—a constitutional step whose greater status confers a greater urgency that would be harder for Trump and his allies to obstruct.)
Above all, it remains to be seen how many Americans care about preserving our constitutional order and the rule of law.