The impeachment imperative: Based on what we’ve learned, we have no choice but to hold President Trump accountable
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Tuesday night with five chairs of House Committees with investigative powers, and offered a comment about the president.
“I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison,” Pelosi said, according to Politico.
The words, which sources later characterized as “offhand,” would seem to throw the value of the congressional impeachment process into doubt.
But the speaker’s stated personal preference for Trump’s criminal prosecution will solve no pressing public issues, and would waste opportunities for public education and input. For those convinced that Trump is running roughshod over ethical norms and the rule of law, impeachment remains the only real answer.
The Department of Justice has long held that the presidency is too vital to be disrupted by criminal charges, even if it means the president escapes due to statutes of limitation running out.
Which means if you’re wishing for imprisonment, you’re conceding that Trump will stay in office until he faces charges as a private citizen.
No one who takes the Mueller report seriously, and who has seen Trump’s reaction to the document, can think this is a sane alternative.
Rather, the report lays out a clear blueprint for an impeachment process, wherein the House decides on charges, and, if a House majority votes to impeach, the Senate then serves as judge and jury.
So let’s review the evidence, shall we?
Contrary to what you may have heard, Mueller’s “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election” demonstrates beyond any doubt that Russians interfered to help Trump.
The Trump campaign “expected to benefit,” and several Trump campaign affiliated individuals “lied to the Office [of Special Counsel] about their interactions with Russia-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.”
Hundreds of pages parse evidence — including which evidence is good enough — in what add up to exciting, written debate on elements and issues of Trump’s and others’ possible crimes.
As everyone knows quite well by now thanks to the special counsel’s public statement mincing no words, Mueller could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice, concluding “…if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”
The special counsel couldn’t arrive at whether to issue an indictment, even if sealed. Mueller was clear: Not only was there policy barring a sitting president from being indicted, not only were there outstanding questions about the evidence, but criminal charges would be unfair to a president who couldn’t have a speedy trial to defend himself.
And so, Mueller further left no doubt about where this might head: “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
Refresher: In presidential impeachment, the House serves as prosecutor, developing the case and proposing charges, called “articles of impeachment.” If a majority of the House votes to impeach, the case is brought to the Senate, which serves as judge and jury.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial as a figurehead. If two thirds of the Senate vote to convict on any article, the president is automatically removed from office.
The penalty for conviction in the Senate is removal from high office. On rare occasions, the Senate may take a vote and forever bar the high officer from any future officeholding.
It’s not a criminal matter, so a criminal trial can also occur. Double jeopardy (“can’t be tried twice for the same crime”) doesn’t apply to impeachment, per the Constitution.
Trump opponents are divided. Some want to jump right into the deep end and begin proceedings. Others acknowledge that some of Trump’s actions are surely impeachable, but worry that the backlash from this action would benefit the president. Impeachment would consume Democratic messaging; nothing else would get heard. Trump would be likelier, not less likely, to win reelection.
I’m pro-impeachment because there’s no way around the central issue in the nation right now: This president has repeatedly proven himself unfit for office.
Some say impeachment will take Democratic eyes off the ball of defeating Trump at the ballot box. I say avoiding the question stifles necessary public education.
The Watergate impeachment process greatly informed and educated the country. I was in college then, with course offerings including historic powers of the presidency. In 1974-75, we traveled the country debating the national debate topic, “Resolved: That the power of the Presidency should be significantly curtailed.”
People watched, talked, learned and debated during the Watergate hearings, which energized a generation of activists in this country. We looked to Congress as problem-solvers, following them on TV.
Our heroes were astronauts, journalists, WWII veterans, members of Congress, federal judges — and courageous lawyers.
Impeachment hearings would teach a generation of future leaders about the rule of law and our constitutional history. They’d learn, for example, that the ancient phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” means neither a crime nor a misdemeanor.
And they’d learn that impeachable offenses, as defined by the Founders and by our history, aren’t just things we don’t like, but actions that impair the ability of our leader to lead our republic with decency and integrity.
Historic presidential impeachable offenses include violations of separation of powers; abuses of office — including oppression and tyranny, which the Framers well knew; violations of duty, including the president’s oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution or failure to take care the laws be faithfully executed; and behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper function of the office.
The crucial factor is the significance of the behavior upon our constitutional system of government, rather than the intrinsic quality of that behavior.
No civil or criminal law-breaking is required for impeachment. The first impeachment conviction in history involved an insane judge.
The president should be evaluated by Congress in hearings on whether he harms the country — wittingly or unwittingly. There are ample examples of his unstable behavior, of his disrespecting the rule of law, of his potential conflicts staining the integrity of his office.
But now, post-Mueller report, Congress must look at a new range of presidential conduct: Is he engaged in fresh, impeachable misconduct by undermining congressional investigations aimed at protecting the country from attack, violating separation of powers in obstruction of Congress and its subpoenas, pressing Attorney General Bill Barr to selectively declassify intelligence and otherwise distorting the fair administration of justice?
Congress should debate the effect of the President repeatedly concluding that work underlying the Mueller investigation is an “attempted coup.” And proclaiming his political foes guilty of “treason,” a crime punishable by death.
Of course, the best evidence of harm to the country, continuing deception of the public and wrongful attacks on legitimate investigators and investigations is worthless without House prosecutors willing to work the case.
Which brings us back to Pelosi.
The speaker understands Trump. As the special counsel’s report explains, the president is sensitive to anything which might “call into question the legitimacy of his election.”
And so, Trump moved from one “phase of action” (attempting to publicly establish that he wasn’t being investigated) to a second phase, post-firing FBI Director Jim Comey.
In that second phase, the president, aware he was being investigated, changed his behavior “significantly”’ he “launched public attacks on the investigation and individuals involved in it who could possess evidence adverse to the president, while in private, the president engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation.”
The actions described by Mueller show the president privately abusing his powers repeatedly to protect himself:
“…the President attempted to remove the Special Counsel; he sought to have Attorney General Sessions unrecuse himself and limit the investigation; he sought to prevent public disclosure of information about the June 9, 2016 meeting between Russians and campaign officials; and he used public forums to attack potential witnesses who might offer adverse information and to praise witnesses who declined to cooperate with the government.”
Mueller discusses the cumulative effects of power abuses in public — as well as private bullying accompanying the public tactics, showing connections in time of particular presidential outbursts and pressure, describing the president’s “unique and powerful means of influencing official proceedings, subordinate officers and potential witnesses.”
Ironically, though Pelosi is right now the Democrats’ main brake on leaning fully into impeachment proceedings, when the speaker triggers the president into public displays of misconduct, she builds evidence for impeachment. She may be provoking damning disclosures that the president might have otherwise kept quiet.
Earlier, she publicly claimed the president “is engaged in a cover-up,” drawing presidential response decrying “phony” investigations, continuing a war of words to interfere in outcomes.
Following the speaker’s Tuesday night dig, Trump spoke about both her and Mueller. In comments to Fox News from the American cemetery at Normandy, the president said of Mueller, “he made such a fool of himself…” Of Pelos: “She’s a disaster.” Of both: “I think they’re in big trouble.”
To the contrary. I predict the speaker’s comments last week, focusing on her desire to see Trump held criminally accountable, will reinforce the president’s final phase of action: broad self-pardon expanded to family and friends, scheduled post-election next November (or in November 2024, as the case may be).
He’s shown us how he’s used his power. He’s told us how he wants to use it.
What are we waiting for?