The inconvenient truth for Democrats is that, like it or not, Congress has a constitutional obligation to conduct impeachment hearings that provide a public trial over Donald Trump’s abuse of power and high crimes against the country.
Democrats rightly worry that they will lose public support and appear vindictive for impeaching a member of the opposing party, much the way Republican disapproval ratings soared after their 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton. Further, the long and bitter process may yield only a censure of Trump or outright acquittal in the Senate. If no Republicans join in impeachment, Democrats might well be correct that it’s a politically bad move for them. Further, most Democrats are not wild about the idea of a President Pence even if impeachment should succeed.
Democrats need to hold an impeachment hearing anyway.
Our republic depends upon a system of checks and balances that requires the legislature to rein in abuse of power by a runaway executive. House members can’t uphold their oath of office by simply sitting on their hands and asking Robert Mueller, who is part of the executive, to do their work for them. Mueller is charged with investigating foreign interference in our elections and bringing charges against anyone who broke US laws. But the standard for holding public office needs to be higher than the standard for staying out of prison.
While it is reasonable to take any charges of Russian collusion or conspiracy against the United States off the table until Robert Mueller completes his investigation, there are other impeachable offenses that Congress simply cannot sweep under DC’s filthy carpet.
According to sworn guilty pleas, Donald Trump violated campaign finance laws by directing his “fixer” Michael Cohen to spend undisclosed money to influence federal campaigns by silencing the speech of two women he had affairs with. Further, Cohen has publicly admitted to illegally paying a Liberty University IT expert to rig on-line polls in Trump’s favor, also at Trump’s direction. While there would normally be a strong argument against impeaching an elected official for crimes committed prior to their assuming office, it’s a different story when those crimes were instrumental in helping them win office in the first place.
Secondly, since his first day in office, Donald Trump has been in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids federal officials from accepting gifts or emoluments (payments) from foreign states. Trump’s businesses, most notably his DC hotel, accept payments from foreign governments and agents. Maryland and the District of Columbia are suing in federal court to enforce the provision, but Congress should not wait for the courts to solve this problem. Courts may or may not eventually put a halt to the practice, but they are powerless to remove a president from office. Further the Clause is vague enough that courts might defer to Congress to assign a more precise meaning through its own hearings and actions. Impeachment is the only act that would deter a future president from similarly flaunting the Constitution and accepting the risk of someday having to disgorge any profits from foreign governments as a small price for doing business at the public’s expense.
Thirdly, Donald Trump has obstructed justice in multiple and obvious occasions. He asked FBI director Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, even though Flynn later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about egregious criminal activity. Trump fired Comey when he refused to drop the investigation, and Trump’s tweets and public statements conclusively show that his state of mind when doing so was to stop the investigation of crimes. Trump has engaged in public witness tampering, most recently by threatening the father-in-law of Michael Cohen. These abuses of power demand a response by Congress.
Finally, Michael Cohen’s guilty plea stated clearly that he lied to Congress about negotiations with Russia about building a Trump Tower in Moscow. Donald Trump lied about this flagrant conflict of interest publicly many times during the campaign as well. Whether or not the details of Buzzfeed’s report that Trump directly or indirectly told Cohen to lie to Congress are borne out, the sum of the publicly available evidence tells us that: A) Trump asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, B) Russia did so, along with multiple other covert operations to illegally influence US elections, C) Paul Manafort assisted the Russians by providing them polling data, and D) Trump assisted the Russians by publicly questioning whether their attack was real despite receiving FBI briefings on it and by refusing to punish Russia with strict sanctions for their actions. Congress should wait for the criminal justice system to prudently decide whether these actions amount to illegal conspiracy, or treason, but congressional hearings can put enough facts on the record to determine if this is behavior unfitting for public office.
Contrary to the claims leaked every few months for the past year (possibly by Trump agents), Robert Mueller may or may not complete his “final” report on foreign influence in our elections while Trump remains in office. Even if he does, Trump’s attorney general may block significant portions of the report from public release. If Trump can drag out the clock much longer, the congressional abdicators’ argument will soon pivot to “there’s not enough time to complete an impeachment process before the end of Trump’s term.”
If Congress fails to hold its own impeachment process even under behavior as flagrant as this president has exhibited, it will mean that Newt Gingrich effectively destroyed impeachment as a tool for executive accountability by his unpopular indictment of Bill Clinton. That blows a major—and perhaps fatal—hole in our Constitution, which depends upon a legislative branch that is willing and able to impeach when warranted.
It is possible that Democrats could expend a lot of time and political capital in the House laying out the evidence and case for impeachment, only to have the Senate acquit the president. But should that occur, they will have done their duty and demonstrated both to voters and to future presidents that nobody is above the law. Voters will then be able to evaluate the actions of their own Senators and hold them accountable in future elections. If Republican voters are willing to look the other way and forgive impeachable behavior (and I’m not convinced they are), then that’s something the country needs to comprehend and grapple with as well.
In fairness, House Democrats are moving forward with a series of hearings that could well produce a public record of evidence that could then be used to impeach Donald Trump. House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings should subpoena Michael Cohen to testify about Trump’s involvement in campaign finance violations, his involvement in orchestrating lies to Congress, and any witness tampering he has witnessed or participated in. House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler can and should hold hearings about potential violation of the Emoluments Clause.
There’s no need to use the “I” word yet so long as the facts come to light. But if this is indeed the plan, then Democrats need to change their talking points from “Wait for Mueller” to “Wait for Cummings and Nadler.” Then, Congress would at least be assigning responsibility to the proper government entity: itself.