Congress Should Begin Impeachment, But Not the Way You Think

Back before Donald Trump was inaugurated, I wrote an article called “Fantasies About Russia Could Doom Opposition to Trump.” Perhaps it is less quixotic, or perhaps it is more, to hope that, after more than two years of being barraged with those fantasies, but with their main focus having publicly flopped, more people will now be open to trying something else. That pre-inauguration article read:

“Trump should be impeached on Day 1, but the same Democrats who found the one nominee who could lose to Trump will find the one argument for impeachment that can explode in their own faces…. Meanwhile, we have a man planning to be president later this month whose business dealings clearly violate the U.S. Constitution in terms of not only foreign but also domestic corruption…. Beyond that, Trump is becoming president after election-day intimidation, the partisan-based removal of voters from the rolls, and opposition to attempting to count paper ballots where they existed. He’s arriving with the stated policies of unconstitutionally discriminating against Muslims, murdering families, stealing oil, torturing, and proliferating nuclear weapons. In other words, Donald Trump will be from Day 1 an impeachable president, and Democrats will have already spent months building their campaign around the one thing that won’t work. Imagine what will happen after all their hearings and press conferences, when their supporters find out that they aren’t even accusing Vladimir Putin of hacking into election machines, that in fact they are accusing unknown individuals of hacking into Democrats’ emails, and that they are then vaguely speculating that those individuals could have been sources for WikiLeaks, thereby informing the U.S. public of what was quite obvious and ought to have been widely reported for the good of the U.S. government, namely that the DNC rigged its primary. By the time the Democrats beat themselves to the floor with this charade, more facts will likely have come out regarding WikiLeaks’ actual source(s), and more hostility will likely have been stirred up with Russia. The war hawks have already got Trump talking up nuclear escalation.”

On inauguration day, RootsAction.org (which I work for) and Free Speech for People launched a petition to impeach Trump for his blatant violation of the foreign and domestic emoluments clauses of the U.S. Constitution, which forbid any appearance or possibility of financial conflicts of interest. Very quickly, over a million people added their support. This past January, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (Dem., Mich.) cosigned an article with Free Speech for People’s John Bonifaz that read:

“We already have overwhelming evidence that the president has committed impeachable offenses, including, just to name a few: obstructing justice; violating the emoluments clause; abusing the pardon power; directing or seeking to direct law enforcement to prosecute political adversaries for improper purposes; advocating illegal violence and undermining equal protection of the laws; ordering the cruel and unconstitutional imprisonment of children and their families at the southern border; and conspiring to illegally influence the 2016 election through a series of hush money payments. Whether the president was directly involved in a conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 election remains the subject of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But we do not need to wait on the outcome of that criminal investigation before moving forward.”

I asked Tlaib what she thought the top grounds for impeachment were, and she named “three key areas where we already know the President has committed impeachable offenses: the Emoluments Clause (Trump Hotel), campaign finance violations (Cohen), and obstruction of justice (Firing Comey).”

Tlaib has publicly committed to introducing articles of impeachment. But her position is extremely rare. Most members of Congress who have spoken of impeachment at all, and most media outlets, have for over two years insisted that Trump should be impeached if and only if the Mueller report proves that Trump worked with the Russian government to steal the 2016 election.

Chair of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler has called talk of impeachment “premature” and dependent on Russiagate, despite also admitting that Trump’s payoffs to silence mistresses are impeachable offenses, despite having proposed to “censure and condemn” Trump after Charlottesville, and despite having pursued the emoluments topic, on which many have argued that an overabundance of evidence is already public.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has told the Washington Post that she is opposed to impeaching Trump because doing so would be “divisive,” and because the United States is “great” and not in any “perilous state,” but would be if Trump had a second term.

“Among the most damaging words to our democracy during the Trump era,” RootsAction.org co-founder Jeff Cohen tells me, “have been these six words: ‘Let’s wait for the Mueller report.’ That strategy of the Democratic leadership — and the obsessive Mueller coverage in allied outlets like MSNBC and CNN — has dangerously narrowed public attention to the not-yet-proven charge of Russian collusion, while normalizing and marginalizing other more provable and impeachable Trump affronts to our Constitution. Imagine, for example, if even one-tenth of the attention lavished on Russiagate had been focused instead on Trump’s ongoing business corruption and his refusal to divest in the face of the Constitution’s requirement that a president not financially benefit from his office. While the public can readily understand greed and self-interest, exit polls in November showed few voters were moved by the Russia collusion issue. The ‘waiting for Mueller’ strategy has made little sense politically, or Constitutionally — and has pushed other Trump offenses to the impeachment sidelines: Muslim ban, racist incitement, infringements on the press, politicizing prosecutions, etc.”

One of the more curious aspects in the long-awaited collapse of the Mueller effort to prove that Trump and Russia stole or tried to steal an election is that most voices in the corporate media have spoken for years both of the need to investigate that possibility and of the supposedly already established fact. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on Saturday March 23rd sent out an email reading “There is overwhelming evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to help his presidential campaign win in 2016. Robert Mueller has been working to investigate the collusion and now that his report has been finalized, it must be made public to the American people. Mueller’s report on Russian interference in our 2016 election and its findings impact the very foundation of our democracy. Our elections are supposed to be by the people, for the people — with zero interference from foreign powers.”

The evidence is so overwhelming that it is never actually cited, and more of it is desperately needed.

Public opinion has moved toward the more-evidence-is-needed view. Support for Trump’s impeachment reached half the country and three-quarters of Democrats last summer, topping his approval rating, and topping where it was prior to Congressional action for Richard Nixon, and of course for Bill Clinton (whose impeachment was never popular), and almost reaching where it was for George W. Bush. But support has fallen with the fizzling out of the Mueller investigation, and with Pelosi’s statements opposing impeachment. Sadly and predictably, the new Cold War has not seen a similar reduction. Military spending is soaring, and the head of NATO has been invited to speak to a joint session of Congress on April 3rd.

RootsAction has produced 18 draft articles of impeachment, but they have thus far been drowned out by Russiagate. Has the focus on a non-Congressional investigation of Russia/WikiLeaks-related charges been helpful or harmful? I’ve found very few eager to answer that question. “We don’t have anything to add to this story,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s communications person told me in a comment typical of a number of Congress members. Journalist and author of The Genius of Impeachment, John Nichols told me, “Every investigation has value. But I believe the most important investigations focus on Trump’s obstruction of justice as president, and on his glaring disregard for the emoluments clause. The president’s financial deeds and misdeeds have, to my mind, always been the richest vein for exploration.”

Journalist and radio host Glen Ford told me, “The ‘investigations’ — if the term is even applicable — have proven that Donald Trump is a sleazy businessman who cares nothing for the law and surrounds himself with hustlers of his own low moral and ethical standards. Capitalism has gotten another black eye, which is good. However, after more than two years of trying, the probes have utterly failed to prove the ‘predicate’ offense, that ‘Russians’ hacked the DNC emails and gave them to Wikileaks. We must all now conclude that the charge is false — which is cause to open a new investigation into the collusion between the Democratic Party, the CIA, and the FBI, and various other actors to foment war hysteria against nuclear-armed Russia and political mayhem at home under false and criminally contrived pretexts. I think this qualifies as a crime against peace, under Nuremberg standards.”

Beyond the desire to investigate those who instigated Russiagate, and the need to address numerous other crises, the movement for Trump’s impeachment is also now up against the marathon election season — which, along with unverifiable vote counting, gerrymandering, the electoral college, a system of legalized bribery, biased debates, corrupt media, registration and ID hurdles, the stripping of names from rolls, and open intimidation, is an actual flaw in past U.S. elections.

If that weren’t enough, impeachment must overcome the dread of Mike Pence. Author and professor Noam Chomsky tells me, “The top ground for getting rid of Trump is that he is carrying out policies designed to undermine the prospects for organized human life in the near future, and is doing so consciously — he understands the effects of global warming very well, as he and his administration have demonstrated. Whether this is grounds for impeachment can be argued, but it would do not good, because it would bring in Pence who is as bad or maybe even worse, because unlike Trump he is a ‘true believer,’ and if God tells him to proceed to destroy, so be it.”

Would it do no good? As opponents of impeachment are also very fond of pointing out, winning a conviction in the Senate would require a major transformation of U.S. politics — the sort of transformation that televised impeachment hearings could bring about, the sort of transformation that could leave a President Pence weaker than a President Gerald Ford and wary of facing his own impeachment. Yet, rather than highlighting the existing facts, or producing new ones, such as Trump’s tax returns, Committee Chairs are complaining that Trump is refusing their requests for documents. An impeachment inquiry would produce those documents or new articles of impeachment for each subpoena not complied with.

I asked Congresswoman Tlaib if she expects the White House will comply with Congressional subpoenas if the President believes he will not be impeached. She replied: “They have not yet.”

There is also the option of impeaching Pence first. Early in the Bush-Cheney era, I met with several Congress Members and impeachment activists to brainstorm. Congresswoman Maxine Waters proposed impeaching Dick Cheney first. The idea was generally welcomed. But Congresswoman Barbara Lee stopped everyone by insisting that Congressman John Conyers would need to approve. Conyers followed the wishes of Pelosi, who has consistently opposed impeachment for Bush, Cheney, Kavanaugh, and Trump.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment against both Bush and Cheney, including 35 articles against Bush that I had led a team of experts in drafting. But much of the Democratic Caucus and Judiciary Chair Conyers refused to budge.

What if the House had impeached Bush or Cheney, and the Senate failed to convict? We can’t answer that with certainty, but we do know what the failure to impeach them led to, what the failure to impeach Reagan for Iran-Contra led to, and what failure to impeach Trump is likely to lead to.

John Nichols thinks we should consult a better understanding of history. “We have never removed a president at the conclusion of an impeachment process,” he tells me. “We have had a president resign when faced with the prospect of removal. And the simple threat of hearings — usually coming in the context of a broader outcry — has caused presidents to alter policies and, I believe, rethink prospective reelection runs. By any measure, hearings, in and of themselves, have the potential to constrain and conclude a lawless presidency. More importantly, hearings set a standard for when and how future presidents can be called to account. Hearings are, to my mind, essential to addressing the high crimes and misdemeanors of the sitting president AND to setting the standards that might prevent future presidents from committing high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Congresswoman Tlaib told me that she doubted an impeachment effort would lead to Trump complying with the law, including the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, but that, “as important is putting any future CEO who wants to become president of the United States on notice that he/she won’t get away with direct conflicts of interests and violations to Constitutional clauses without Congress investigating and holding all those involved accountable.”