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Start the Impeachment Campaign Now!

July 21, 2018

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In our country’s history, there has never been a president as deserving of impeachment as Donald Trump. The reasons for removing him from office are both manifest and numerous, but his subservience to a hostile foreign power on display in Helsinki has made this both more obvious and more urgent.

The problem is how to do this successfully when the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress (not to mention the Supreme Court) and continues to protect Trump from any accountability. The process is inherently difficult, and indeed no president has ever been removed by impeachment. Nixon, the only president ever to resign, did so under the threat of impeachment, but was never formally impeached.

Constitutionally, the process has two parts. First the House of Representatives must pass a bill of impeachment which lists the “high crimes and misdemeanors” of which the president is accused. Then two-thirds of the Senate (i.e., 67 members) must vote to convict him of such crimes. At present, barring a miraculous Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion of a large number of Republicans, neither of those things can happen. For that reason, the Democratic Party leadership has stifled any attempt to bring impeachment proceedings forward, and moreover has been virtually unwilling to utter the “I” word. We are in uncharted waters here, but I believe this timid approach is the wrong strategy, especially in the current fraught political environment.

So how are we to deal with a president who is plainly being manipulated by a foreign despot? We must begin by recognizing that impeachment is not really a judicial process, but rather a political one. The Constitution does not describe what kinds of acts might qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors”. In essence, those acts are whatever Congress decides they are.

The three historical examples of impeachment illustrate just how arbitrary these can be.

  • Andrew Johnson was impeached for firing Secretary of War Edward Stanton in alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act which had been passed by Congress to protect Stanton and which was probably itself unconstitutional. (His impeachment failed in the Senate by one vote.)
  • Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky (the formal charges were perjury and obstruction of justice), following a multiyear investigation by Independent Counsel Ken Starr of various unrelated allegations of wrongdoing growing out of the Whitewater scandal while Clinton was governor of Arkansas, which never resulted in indictments of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. (Both charges failed in the Senate.)
  • Richard Nixon was about to impeached for his role in the cover-up of the Watergate burglary of the Democratic National Committee. As noted above, he resigned the presidency before he could be impeached.

Of the three, clearly the Nixon case was the most egregious, but all of these took place amidst a supercharged political environment. However, none of these can remotely be considered as serious as the charge of collusion with Russia to subvert the US election process, and only the Johnson impeachment (immediately after the Civil War) occurred in a political atmosphere nearly as bitterly divided as our current one.

So far, the Democratic Party leadership has opted to put all of its eggs in Robert Mueller’s basket, hoping that his investigation will result in evidence of wrongdoing so compelling that Trump’s Republican protectors will be shamed into doing the right thing. While that isn’t completely inconceivable, there are obvious flaws in that strategy.

First, Trump could simply pull the plug on the Mueller investigation and gut the upper levels of the Justice Department and install his own lackeys. (The first steps in that direction may have already begun with the appointment of Trump transition team official Brian Benczkowski to head the Criminal Division at Justice.) What would happen then is quite unclear, but with a Republican congressional majority that is plainly interested in NOT seeing the investigation through to its conclusion, it could well simply fizzle out, and the evidence that Mueller’s team has assembled might never see the light of day.

Trump could also start handing out pardons right and left in order to avoid the public glare of trials and to discourage witnesses from cooperating with investigators. However counterintuitive it might seem, a president can issue a pardon before a conviction or before formal charges have even been made. Gerald Ford did exactly that for Nixon.

The Democrats’ operating assumption has been that if Trump were to do any of these things the blowback would be so severe that he simply wouldn’t dare. I think that is a dangerous assumption. Would anyone have thought that three days after humiliating himself before Putin in Helsinki, Trump would then invite him to the White House? The Democratic leadership may also fear that by pushing the impeachment idea, it might actually encourage Trump to scuttle the Mueller probe. I think he will do that regardless the minute he decides that Mueller is getting too close.

The other fundamental weakness in this strategy is the assumption that there is some level of evidence that will–by itself–cause the Republican leadership to allow an impeachment bill reach the floor of the House, let alone reach the Senate for a trial. So far there is zero evidence that that assumption is valid.

There are two things that could make a successful impeachment possible. The first is a massive Democratic vote turnout in the mid-term election, which would eliminate the Republican majority in the House and show conclusively that supporting Trump is a political liability. That would allow a bill of impeachment to come to a vote in the House. However, there is absolutely no possibility that the Democrats will have close to the 67 seats in the Senate needed to convict Trump.

That leads to the second necessary condition, which is a report from the Mueller investigation that is so damning that there will be unbearable pressure from the American public on Republican senators to stop defending Trump. I think the Democratic leadership needs to begin laying the ground work for that now, and that means they need to begin a media campaign now that lays out the basic argument for impeachment in order to educate the public that isn’t paying attention yet. And that media campaign must be a central part of the message that Democratic candidates at all levels will be delivering before the November elections.

There is plenty of material already known that in more normal times would provide ample justification for impeaching Trump. Start with the unprecedented levels of personal corruption by Trump and his family, and their flagrant flouting of ethics law and regulations. Or the wanton destruction of the international security apparatus that has protected the US and our allies for 70 years. Or the willful refusal of Trump’s administration to implement our own asylum laws and the inexcusable separation and incarceration of immigrant children away from their parents. Or the big one: Trump’s treasonous subordination of US interests to those of Vladimir Putin.

Lets repeat:  Impeachment is a POLITICAL process! For it to work, it needs a movement behind it. There is tremendous political energy in this country in reaction to Trump, but it is essentially leaderless with disparate goals. It needs to be mobilized in support of one great objective: to destroy Trump and what he represents. If we can’t do that, everything else the opposition is trying to do will fail as well. We are in the middle of a reactionary counterrevolution, but we continue to play by obsolete rules that the enemy has totally abandoned.

The Democratic Party is the only institution that can do this, but its leadership is far too timid and focused on process. It needs to articulate clearly to the American public why Trump cannot be permitted to remain in office and then make that its number one priority. If Schumer and Pelosi can’t do that, then we need to replace them with someone who can.

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