Unhappily, with each passing week, I become more convinced that if the Democrats in Congress continue on their current path in dealing with the Trump crisis, they will disgrace themselves in the eyes of history.
This is one piece in a series presenting ways of looking at this Trump crisis that lead to that conclusion, and that look for ways that the Democrats might better meet the challenges of this moment.
I realize that there are good Democrats who support the current path. And I would willingly engage in a debate here with anyone interested in a rational discussion of the issues involved.
It was necessary to impeach Richard Nixon. I doubt any serious historian questions that. But impeaching Donald Trump is far more necessary for protecting the nation, and specifically for protecting our Constitutional order and the rule of law, than was the case with Nixon’s presidency.
Three important differences.
Discrete Crimes versus Complete Contempt for Limits
Perhaps the most important of the three is that Trump has a contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law that is pervasive. Nixon committed impeachable offenses, but aside from his crimes he operated basically within the given structures and norms of American politics.
The articles of impeachment for Trump would contain those for Nixon – abuse of power, contempt of Congress, obstruction of justice – and those would be plenty sufficient to warrant his removal. (Dayenu!)
But with Trump, the list of transgressions could be lengthened considerably—well beyond what is shown in the Mueller Report: a long but only partial list of these other impeachable offenses will be presented in a separate piece. (That list will include emoluments clause, the tariff usurpation, the funding usurpation, the machinations around the census, the disregard of asylum law… and many more that are entirely arguable to be “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
(Cass Sunstein declared the other day that “high crimes and misdemeanors” was not an ambiguous term to the founders, that the phrase was clearly understood to mean an “egregious misue of authority.”)
The issue here is not just that there are many offenses. Rather it is that this multiplicity of egregious acts demonstrates something profoundly dangerous about having such a man wielding the powers of the American presidency: Trump has no regard for anything that would constrain him from doing what he wants, or taking what he wants. So long as it benefits him, the evidence suggests, and he believes he can get away with it, he will do it.
(If Trump backed off on the citizenship question on the census, I would bet heavily, it was only because he felt that his defying the Supreme Court would be too risky for him and work against his quest to expand his power.)
The well-being and security of the nation requires that everything possible be done to remove such a President.
(And, to make a point I expect to be repeating, the Democrats should certainly not acquiesce uncomplainingly in the notion that it’s OK — that it should be permissible — for such a President running for a second term. That should be made into an issue.)
Trump can simply not be trusted with the powers of the presidency. With Richard Nixon one could imagine his accepting terms that he could finish his term but only if he behaved himself from there on out. With Donald Trump, transgression against law and norm are so fundamental to his character that no such assurance could ever be believed.
Everything possible must be done in the attempt to remove such a lawless President from office, whether or not that attempt is likely to succeed. A marker must be laid down.
Had Nixon gotten away with his crimes, which had been committed secretly, the nation would have been corroded in some ways, but the damage would not have been fundamental. Had there been no impeachment inquiry, we’d not have known how much of a “crook” President Nixon was. (No inquiry, no smoking-gun tapes, no acquiescence of the nation in presidential lawlessness.)
But Trump repeatedly commits crimes right before our eyes. (Consider his unprecedented “contempt of Congress” and “obstruction of justice” — with across the board defiance of subpoenas of witnesses and documents — since the release of the Mueller Report.)
(Speaker Pelosi has said that Trump is “daring” the Democrats to impeach him. I doubt he wants to be impeached, but it does seem that an important motivational force in his character structure is the determination to be seen transgressing and getting away with it. And why Trump’s blatant challenge to the rule of law is a reason not to impeach him is beyond me.)
If the whole nation beholds a President’s lawlessness, and he nonetheless does get away with putting himself above the law, the damage to the nation – our concept of what kind of governmental system we have—would be serious. It would remove the guardrails that separate the road from the cliff.
Presidential Competence Versus Ongoing Presidential Destructiveness
Apart from his crimes, Richard Nixon was a competent president. (Which doesn’t at all mean I agreed with Nixon on much.) He understood the governmental processes and structures, and he dealt with them effectively and often constructively (e.g. establishing the EPA). Nixon embraced a reasonably consensual notion of the national interest and worked intelligently to advance it (e.g. his rapprochement with China, putting pressure on our main Cold War rival).
Trump, on the other hand, seems to have an unerring sense of how to make everything worse—whether it is attacking the alliances that have been a bulwark of America’s power, exacerbating the conflicts between racial and ethnic groups of Americans, giving more money and power to the already wealthiest and mightiest at a time when the gaps of inequality were already a serious national problem, stripping people of health care, taking every available action to increase the dangers to us from climate change, seeming to be in some kind of strange partnership with America’s most threatening adversary, and… the list could go on and on.
If Trump had committed no “high crimes and misdemeanors” at all, and thus there was no basis for impeaching him, and thus the nation were stuck with this president, that would still leave the United States in a terribly dangerous situation (unlike with Nixon). (Like the unnecessary war with Iran that we apparently almost plunged into a few weeks ago.)
But of course, he has committed impeachable offenses — so many such offenses that it could reasonably be argued that Trump approximates the most impeachable President we could imagine.
If the Democrats choose nonetheless not even to make the effort to remove such a maximally impeachable President – unlike what the Congress of 1974 did with Richard Nixon – there is no doubt in my mind that historians of this period will regard that failure as a disgraceful dereliction of duty.