Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Democratic president had acted as a doormat for Russia, indulging and amplifying an unprecedented soft invasion of America via its electoral process. Just suppose, after having benefited from the cyber-invasion conducted on his behalf, that a Democratic president had sided with Russia against his own intelligence agencies, and had systematically lied and obstructed a years-long federal investigation.
If that were ever to happen, what are the odds that an aggrieved and unified Republican party would be demanding the president’s impeachment and removal, hammering the public 24/7 with hearings and hashtags? What are the odds that the congressional GOP would view such a debasement of the presidency to be far more egregious than Bill Clinton’s sworn lies about sex – which they deemed impeachable 20 years ago, when Lindsey Graham declared that “impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office”?
As if we need to ask.
See, here’s the asymmetric difference between Republicans and Democrats: One party (guess which one) instinctively revels in the exercise of power, busts boundaries without apology, and triples down on what it believes, even if it means defending a cult leader and trashing the rule of law. The other party (guess which one) instinctively quakes in its shoes, fearing that if it stands up for what it believes, the opposition and some of the voters will get very mad.
That’s what we’re seeing now. Robert Mueller has teed up the House Democrats to do their job – to act on a report that has exposed a breadth and depth of presidential perfidy that dwarfs Watergate – and yet they hesitate. The swing voters in 2020 swing states might not support an impeachment process, they say. The House process would be futile because the Republican Senate will never remove Trump, they say. So their instinct is to unilaterally disarm, to abet the normalization of authoritarian lawlessness.
This is no time for dereliction of duty. Instead of fretting about an anti-impeachment voter backlash in 2020, they should heed what Mueller wrote in his report about Trump’s multiple obstructions of justice: “The Constitution does not authorize the President to engage in such conduct, and those actions would transgress the President’s duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.'” If House Democrats flex the power that voters granted them in 2018 – if they hold hearings and move toward impeachment if and when the evidence warrants – they can move the needle on public opinion. It’s called leadership. It’s about standing up for American values and the rule of law.
And if the Republican Senate refuses to convict and remove Trump, fine. Put the GOP on record. Make the GOP own their amorality. Make that an issue in 2020 – along with health care and other kitchen-table fundamentals. Democrats should be fully capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Reality-based conservatives recognize what needs to be done. Charlie Sykes, the former right-wing talk show host, said the other day: “Unless Congress takes its oversight seriously, then the president is literally above the law. I understand the Democrats don’t want to do it politically, but this is their job. This is the way the system is supposed to work. They have to take their constitutional obligations seriously.” George Conway, the esteemed conservative attorney (and husband of Kellyanne), puts it more pungently: “Americans should expect far more than merely that their president not be provably a criminal…There is a cancer in the presidency, Donald J. Trump. Congress now bears the solemn constitutional duty to excise that cancer without delay.”
Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope that House Democrats might be strengthening their spines.
Nancy Pelosi, who recently said that an impeachment inquiry is “not worth it,” nevertheless signaled last week that “Congress will not be silent.” Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, who said on TV yesterday that “an impeachment is likely to be unsuccessful,” also said “it may be that we undertake an impeachment nonetheless” – given the fact that “the level of evidence in the Mueller report is serious and damning and…without question within the realm of impeachable offenses.” Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings said yesterday that he’s “not there yet” on impeachment, but “I can foresee that possibly coming.” Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, whose panel would lead such an inquiry, said yesterday that Mueller’s evidence might prompt him to act: “We’re going to see where the facts lead us.”
And on Friday, Elizabeth Warren tweeted a call to action, by far the strongest of any 2020 candidate: “To ignore a President’s repeated efforts to obstruct an investigation into his own disloyal behavior would inflict great and lasting damage on this country. The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.” (The cynical spin is that Warren spoke up because she needs attention in a crowded field. But if calling for impeachment proceedings is supposedly a political liability, why do it?)
The impeachment standards were firmly established in 1974, by the House Judiciary Committee’s legal counsel, six months before Richard Nixon quit. John Doar, a registered Republican, outlined a wide range of impeachable offenses, including many that resonate today: “…undermining the integrity of office, disregard of constitutional duties and oath of office, arrogation of power, abuse of the government process, adverse impact on the system of government…conduct seriously incompatible with either the constitutional form and principles of our government, or the proper performance of constitutional duties.”
And we can add serial lying to that list: “Lying to the American people is a betrayal of trust. The pattern of deception and dishonesty that acts as a bodyguard to this president strikes at the very core of his ability to lead. Either the president chooses contempt or complete disregard – or his conscience is so diminished as to leave him unable to discern the truth from his lies.” So said Republican John Thune, on the House floor in 1998, citing his reasons why Bill Clinton should be impeached.
Today, John Thune is a high-ranking member of the Republican Senate – one of the craven Trump enablers who refuses to put country over party. It’s up to the Democrats to put country first and act in the national interest.