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Without Impeachment, We’re Lowering Standards for All Future Presidents

Many thought a man like Trump could never become president. The fact that he did means someone worse could follow.

President Trump arrives for an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 18, 2019.

The official title of the Mueller report is “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election.” Had the report’s authors added a subhead, it could easily have been, “It’s Not Our Place to Say Trump Must Be Impeached, but Yeah, Trump Must Be Impeached.” The time has come for House Democrats to do exactly that.

After reading it twice, I have a crystal-clear understanding of why several of Mueller’s investigators went public with their disdain for Attorney General William Barr’s laughably porous “summary” of the report. While the report found that members of the Trump campaign did not hack the DNC’s computers themselves, leak those stolen documents to Wikileaks themselves, or undertake a massive social media disruption effort themselves, the campaign as well as the candidate were fully aware of and happily capitalized upon the pro-Trump efforts of Russian operatives. The first 60 pages of the report are so explicit about these facts that only a bot could miss the gist.

Once in office, Donald Trump serially obstructed justice by interfering with the Mueller investigation and demanding that his attorneys and advisers lie about his conduct and manufacture evidence to obscure his conduct. His attempted disruption of the investigation into then-national security adviser Michael Flynn; the firing of then-FBI director James Comey; his efforts to fire Robert Mueller and derail the investigation; his insistence that then-White House counsel Don McGahn lie about the efforts to remove or disrupt Mueller; and his efforts to disrupt the gathering of testimony from former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen individually and collectively blow right past the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

These were deeply damaging bold-face crimes committed in the presence of testifying witnesses. Trump can be prosecuted, impeached or both for committing them even if no underlying crime was established in the report.

“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if the Senate determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role,” said none other than Senator Lindsey Graham in 1999, “because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”

Convictions for obstruction of justice and/or perjury absent an underlying crime are not uncommon. Just ask former White House adviser Scooter Libby, Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, Major League baseball player Miguel Tejada, businesswoman Martha Stewart, and investment banker Frank Quattrone.

That list of names also includes President Bill Clinton, who inspired Sen. Graham’s paean to executive morality. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives for perjury and obstruction of justice regarding the Whitewater investigation. As with the others, those charges were also levied with no underlying crimes legally established.

The question currently roiling the ranks of the Democratic Caucus is not whether they can impeach Trump, but whether they should. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and several of her closest allies have labored to tamp down any talk of impeachment, but those walls are crumbling in the aftermath of the Mueller report.

A growing chorus of House Democrats are singing the impeachment song. Presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) have come out publicly in favor of impeachment. More than three-quarters of Democratic voters supported impeachment before the Mueller report landed, a number that has surely grown now that the report has had a few days to burn in.

The number making Speaker Pelosi and her allies so nervous is 36, which is the percent of overall voters who support impeaching Trump according to a CNN poll. That level of support, they believe, is far too low to justify undertaking such a serious endeavor. Anti-impeachment Democrats view Trump as being eminently vulnerable to defeat in 2020, and worry that an impeachment push could be viewed by the electorate as a gross overreach. Beyond that, they see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) as an immovable object standing squarely astride the impeachment path.

These are not wholly unreasonable concerns, but those voicing them are missing the wider issue. Politically speaking, an impeachment drive could be a boon to campaigning Democrats all across the country. Allowing the Mueller report and all it contains to slip down the memory hole would not only be an abrogation of duty for every elected official, it would be a historic wasted opportunity.

In this matter, House Democrats need to walk the impeachment process while chewing the campaign gum. Candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) are correct when they say voters are deeply concerned about the cost of health care and the effects of climate disruption. Senator Warren is correct when she says voters are interested in educational opportunities and new ways to mitigate or eliminate student debt. In the context of the 2020 presidential election, there is no reason why candidates and members of Congress can’t focus on all of these issues simultaneously as part of a single consolidated effort.

Let the candidates incorporate the necessity of impeachment into their stump speeches without allowing that one topic to overwhelm all the others. Let committee chairmen like Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) call the hearings, gather the evidence and interrogate witnesses like Don McGahn and even Robert Mueller himself. Like as not, many voters will not read the full Mueller report, so let the people at the center of its creation speak into the cameras and explain for all to see what took place in the Trump White House.

Speaker Pelosi and her friends are worried about that 36 percent approval rating, about winning the public relations battle with the right’s formidable messaging machine. They must be reminded that, at the outset of the Watergate hearings in May 1973, the approval rating for impeaching and removing President Richard Nixon stood at 19 percent. By the time Nixon resigned the presidency in August of 1974, that number had reached 57 percent. The hearings made the difference.

Make no mistake: This will be a fight to the knife. The White House has telegraphed its intentions to assert executive privilege to stop McGahn from testifying before Congress, a dubious legal proposition that is more about stalling for time than anything else. Separately, former White House personnel security director Carl Kline has defied a subpoena from Rep. Cummings’s committee on the orders of the Trump administration, and the committee is now preparing to hold Kline in contempt. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has also defied a congressional order to turn over Trump’s tax records for the second time.

“Taken together,” writes The Washington Post, “the moves mark a dramatic escalation of tensions between the president and congressional Democrats.” That is polite Post-speak. In truth, the White House has lowered the gates and set fire to the moat. This is now a siege war; one Congress cannot afford to lose if it expects to remain even vaguely relevant in this constitutional government.

House Democrats must initiate the impeachment process and lay it all out there for the people to see. If certain witnesses like McGahn are mired in a court battle with the White House, call other witnesses. Or else simply read the Mueller report testimony into the congressional record, the way depositions are read into trial records when a witness is unavailable.

When the process reaches the Senate, the impeachment trial will be a spectacle for the ages. There are 22 Senate Republicans facing re-election in 2020, and 20 Republican votes needed to pass an order of impeachment (provided the Senate Democratic caucus holds together).

Every Republican in that chamber will be required to vote in public on the fitness of Trump to serve as president with all the evidence laid out, and more than a third of them will then have to run on that record. They will be way out there in the daylight with the whole world watching, and that will be worth the price of admission all by itself.

In the end and all politics aside, the question of whether impeachment would be ultimately successful is moot. It must be done because the rule of law, indeed the country itself, is on the line. If impeachment proceedings are not undertaken against Donald Trump in the face of such overwhelming criminal evidence, a partisan attorney general and a partisan Republican majority in the Senate will have set the standard of conduct for all presidents to come so low as to be utterly unrecognizable and thoroughly unenforceable.

“The events of the past week, following the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s dramatic 448-page report, are threatening to redefine the legal and ethical standards that have long served as constraints on the American presidency,” write Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey for The Washington Post. “And they suggest that few, if any, of the traditional guardrails that have kept Trump’s predecessors in check remain for this president and possibly those who will follow him.”

Senator Warren was asked about her stance on impeachment during a CNN town hall gathering on Monday night. She answered:

This is not about politics. This is about principle. This is about what kind of a democracy we have. In a dictatorship, everything in government revolves around protecting the one person at the center, but not in our democracy and not under our Constitution. We have checks and balances, and we have to proceed here in a way understanding our place in history that not only protects democracy now, but protects democracy when the next president comes in and the next president and the president after that.

… and the crowd went wild.

Sen. Warren gave a clinic Monday night on how, and why, Democrats need to walk and chew gum at the same time. Speaker Pelosi’s unmerited caution may ultimately undo the nation. She and her friends must take heed of Senator Warren’s words and take immediate action.

A lot of people thought a man like Donald Trump could never become president. The fact that he is president means all bets are off and someone even worse could follow. Even someone better must not be allowed to enjoy the new powers that will be baked into the executive branch if there are no legal consequences for what has transpired.

It’s not only about Trump. It’s about every president to come. It’s about us, and whether we have the courage to do what is right regardless of the final outcome.

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