Here I’m going to simply assume the point I’ve argued many times before: that the impeachment of this utterly lawless President is — and has long been obvious to be — a necessity. (One recent such argument can be found in “Trump’s Impeachment: Not Just This or That ‘High Crime,’ But His Utter Contempt for the Constitution.”
The Democrats — under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership — have delayed taking any such step. And as of this writing, that delay looks like a very unfortunate choice:
If impeachment is still necessary, the politics of it have become more difficult.
The hope has (supposedly) been that a substantial number of the uninformed and misinformed among the electorate could first be made to see the necessity of impeachment before the Democrats took the first step in that direction.
But time has passed, and the informing of the American people has been thwarted: first by the deliberate misrepresentations of Trump’s hand-picked Attorney General, second by the way the Mueller Report failed to inform the public more effectively, and now by Mueller’s successful effort to refrain from using his moment in front of the cameras to make as clear as possible to the public the picture of presidential wrong-doing his investigation had uncovered.
The Democrats therefore find themselves in the position of having very little more basis for launching an impeachment process now than they had months ago. Which makes the politics of launching it now more problematic, as the public will hardly be swept along while they reasonably wonder, “Why now? Why not impeach before or,” more threateningly to the Democrats politically, “not impeach at all?”
A bit of a timeline:
1) The Democrats could not impeach while the Republicans controlled the House, of course. But they could have clamored more loudly for impeachment, and beat the Republicans over the head much more vigorously for betraying their oath of office. They could have been educating the public all along, even without any power but a microphone’s, about the picture of Trump’s exceptional impeachability.
(I did, in fact, conduct in the spring of 2017 two press events against my 2012 Republican opponent, Bob Goodlatte, who had gained the suddenly crucial position of Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. In that position, he protected Trump rather than the Constitution he’d taken an oath to defend.)
But the Democrats were largely quiet about the Presidential crimes being committed right before our eyes. And they waited for the 2018 election, in which they campaigned by deliberately downplaying the national crisis created by this utterly lawless President.
2) When the Democrats took control of the House at the beginning of this year, they could have moved straight toward impeachment: the case was already plenty strong enough (as the likes of Tom Steyer showed in his national advertising campaign).
But a good case could have been made to wait until the Mueller Report landed on their desks to lay out the case for the President’s crimes. When that happened, and when William Barr did all he could to blunt the impact of that Report, the Democrats had the material for impeaching, and should have moved ahead. And they had every necessary grounds to go after the Attorney General for obstructing justice– all of which would have called attention to the wrong-doing of the President that Barr was doing all he could to cover up.
But the Democrats waited.
3) It had been the plan of the Democrats — which I thought a good one — to hold a set of “oversight” hearings that would expose all the same information that would come out in an impeachment process. The idea was that the controversy over the solemn step of impeachment could be avoided while the need for that step became clear to the American people.
But that plan was completely thwarted by the unprecedented across-the-board obstructive tactics used by Trump and Barr to prevent the Democrats from getting any of the witnesses, whose testimony would paint the necessary picture, and any of the documents that would flesh out the picture of presidential crimes.
When Trump and his gang embarked on that all-out war to deny Congress its constitutional role, that was another good moment to launch the impeachment process. What Trump and Barr have done since the Mueller Report was released would be more than enough basis for impeaching both of them. Obstruction of justice, contempt of Congress, abuse of power: right there, right in front of everyone, right now– virtually compelling Congress to act in defense of some of the most fundamental aspects of the Constitution they’d all taken an oath to defend (checks and balances, separation of powers).
But the Democrats waited.
They worked for months to get a reluctant Robert Mueller to testify in public. But he turned out to be anything but the powerful witness worth waiting for that many (including me) had once expected him to be.
So now Mueller has come and gone: whatever the shortcomings of his Report and his testimony, he has certainly provided sufficient evidence to warrant Trump’s impeachment. But it’s really no more than we’ve known for months. (And in some ways it really doesn’t do more than flesh out somewhat what we’ve known for several years about Trump’s being fairly drenched in a whole stew of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”)
So now the Democrats are waiting again.
Maybe this time the waiting will pay off, and the Democrats will get yet another moment that can launch them powerfully into conducting the necessary impeachment process:
- Maybe Don McGahn will testify, and he’ll prove the witness that moves the proverbial needle of public opinion;
- Maybe the Democrats will be able to get some of Mueller’s deputies to testify publicly, and maybe they will prove to be the kind of witnesses that understand both what is important for the public to understand about what they discovered and how they as prosecutors must communicate to convey to the public what the people need to know.
- Maybe all these matters the Democrats have taken to Court will get resolved quickly enough that the process of public education that they’d hoped to start months ago will finally get rolling in a powerful way.
I don’t know how strong those “maybes” are. My fear is that whatever Court victories the Democrats get will be so long in coming that they will just confirm my present fear that the Democrats’ waiting has just meant the opportunities have been largely lost.
(“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.” Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 3.)
Of course, there is a widespread and plausible view that for Speaker Pelosi, missing that opportunity is welcome, because — according to this view — it’s not really that she’s wanted to go into battle with “the strongest possible hand,” but that she wanted to avoid the impeachment battle altogether.
(And some commentators have said in the wake of Mueller’s less than dramatic testimony that the Mueller dud strengthened the hand Pelosi really cares about– i.e. her no-impeachment hand.)
On that position, more anon. This piece has been devoted to the costs the Democrats appear to be paying for delaying a move into impeachment that they understood to be necessary and wanted to make. Shortly, I will address (not for the first time, but in fresh terms) the possible (but not proven) Pelosi desire to avoid impeachment altogether.
The title of that coming piece will be: “There Has Been No Honorable Option NOT to Impeach.”
(I will concede that it’s possible that the tide has gone too far past the crest, but even if the weakening of the Democrats’ position for impeachment renders it unwise to undertake the battle, that no-impeachment outcome will still be a blot on the Party for failing to fulfill its responsibilities at a perilous moment in American history.)