When the House Democratic leadership announced on Tuesday morning that only two articles of impeachment will be charged against Donald Trump — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — I was ready to start flipping tables and punching holes in the drywall.
After everything that has transpired in the three years since that wad of pub cheese first darkened the White House doorstep, after all the investigations, after entire mountain ranges of evidence have been gathered against him, these two articles are the best the Democrats can manage?
“Bribery.” Say it with me, Democrats: Bry. Buh. Ree. Easy word, easy concept, and hey look, it’s listed right there in the founding documents as a pointedly impeachable offense. Article II, Section IV, big as life: “The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
That is precisely what Trump did when he withheld military aid and a state visit from Ukraine. He dangled items of value in front of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for dirt on a political rival. Trump did this for one reason: to help win the 2020 presidential election, period, end of file. He should be impeached for it, specifically.
The framers of the Constitution did not include the crime of “Bribery” in Article II because they tripped over it on their way to the spittoon. They included it because bribery of an elected official is a menace to the country. In this case, bribery by an elected official to affect the outcome of an election is a menace to democracy itself.
Democrats spent the first several weeks of the impeachment investigation repeatedly describing a “quid pro quo” between Trump and Ukraine. Eventually, and wisely, they switched gears and began using more specific and accurate words like “bribery” and “extortion.” On Tuesday, when the rubber met the road, “bribery” was gone, replaced by an “abuse of power” charge that is almost laughable when you consider how much power the legislative branch has willfully ceded to the executive branch over the last five decades.
“The Democrats’ worry appears to be that it would then put them in the position of satisfying the statutory requirements of bribery,” reports Aaron Blake for The Washington Post, “which is a valid concern. But satisfying the more nebulous ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ and ‘abuse of power’ won’t be easy, either, especially given that people are welcome to define them how they like. At least with bribery, we would know exactly what Democrats are accusing Trump of, and you could explain it in one word.”
But wait, there’s more! Volume II of the Mueller Report went to excruciatingly detailed lengths to describe all the ways Trump vividly obstructed justice during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Mueller himself did not believe it was his place to recommend any specific action against Trump, and the world remembers the summary-smokescreen deployed by Attorney General William Barr in an attempt to distort the facts contained in the report.
Volume II of the Mueller Report still exists despite having come to nothing in Congress, though a stunning number of Trump cronies were tried and convicted in the process of the investigation. The report was printed in clear black ink on clean paper, and remains thoroughly readable today. Mueller believed it was Congress’s duty to act on the information his investigation gathered. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, only three months into her new/old position, chose not to act. She could have acted on Tuesday, but again refused.
Speaker Pelosi’s decision to leave Trump’s brazen obstruction of justice during Mueller’s investigation out of the articles of impeachment, while Mueller’s starkly revelatory report has spent the last eight months gathering dust on her desk, is an astonishing act of political and legal malpractice.
Pelosi had performed admirably to this point in the process, especially given her decades-spanning reluctance to impeach demonstrably criminal Republican presidents. Once she decided it was happening, and her face was going to be the hood ornament on the impeachment bus, she has been all in to great effect. The White House obstruction she and the committee chairs have endured has been comprehensive in scope, yet despite this, the Democrats still managed to make the case for impeachment clearly and unequivocally.
And now, this. This tepid thing, this half a loaf, this overweening desire not to make anyone angry or uncomfortable, especially conservative Democrats — some of whom are already plotting to undermine the impeachment vote anyway. This is par for the course: Speaker Pelosi has been in a defensive crouch for almost 40 years now, ever since Ronald Reagan became president and the 60s-era Democratic coalition flew apart at the seams. In approving only these two soft articles, Pelosi reverted to form: When in doubt, move to the right.
Pelosi has shown flashes of steel — her government shutdown showdown with Trump, her impeachment stewardship until Tuesday morning — but funny clap-clap memes don’t amount to much when you cede ground in crunch time. Tuesday was crunch time, and once again, the Democrats have chosen timidity when stouter hearts were required.
That being sadly said, the two proffered impeachment articles are not wholly without merit. During Monday’s ridiculous Judiciary Committee hearing on the articles, the Democrats cut through an auditory wall of shouting Republicans with a clear and unequivocal explanation of why “abuse of power” is an impeachable offense.
“We are here today because Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, abused the power of his office, the American presidency, for his political and personal benefit,” said Democratic committee attorney Daniel Goldman at the outset of the hearing. “As part of this scheme, President Trump applied increasing pressure on the president of Ukraine to publicly announce two investigations helpful to his personal reelection efforts.”
The “obstruction of Congress” charge is also interesting. Obstruction of Congress is a different animal than obstruction of justice; no president has ever been charged with such an offense. With this charge, Democrats appear to be trying to wrestle back some of the power that has tilted toward the executive branch over the years. At a minimum, they are laying down a marker that congressional oversight is a vital element of a functioning federal government.
It is easy enough to say that none of this matters because even though the president will almost certainly be impeached by the House, he is highly unlikely to be convicted in the Republican-controlled Senate. What’s the point of getting all kerfuffled over the contents of the impeachment articles if they are all but guaranteed to come to nothing? They may as well draft an article accusing Trump of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby for all the good it will do, right?.
To this, I say: It matters because the definition of “integrity” is doing the right thing even in the face of certain failure.
The political makeup of the Senate is no excuse for House Democrats to go floppy at the finish line. Donald Trump forced this impeachment upon us all when he attempted to bribe an ally. His serial criminality and self-dealing, going back to the Mueller investigation and well before, made impeachment an inescapable constitutional necessity. Finishing strong, with a proper slate of impeachment articles, would have planted a flag that history would never forget, regardless of the outcome in the Senate.
The House could have done these articles of impeachment right. Instead, they did the minimum when the moment called for more. Those who don’t perceive the difference just might be part of the problem.