The Impeachment Question

An Overview
CNS photo/Win McNamee pool via Reuters

To impeach, or not to impeach? That is the question. I’m not ambivalent about the Trump presidency, which I regard as a calamity on nearly every front. But I am ambivalent—very—about impeachment.

Sentiment among Democrats of various stripes has waxed and waned. There was a big push back in January, coinciding with the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. With its lurid descriptions of dysfunction in the White House, the book deepened widespread worry over Trump’s erratic behavior, and a public referendum ensued on whether he is mentally fit to govern. The Times, operating in Daily News mode, issued a lead editorial, “Is Mr. Trump Nuts?” A Yale professor of psychiatry brought out a book titled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, claiming that Trump is “unraveling”—a charge that spurred the remarkable immigration roundtable clearly staged to show that our president was still relatively raveled. The Yale professor, Dr. Bandy Lee, insisted that Trump constitutes a “public health risk,” due to his capacity for initiating “catastrophic violence,” and that mental-health professionals—with an eye toward removal through the Twenty-fifth Amendment—had a “duty to warn” about a president’s psychological instability.

Such comments spurred a backlash, with commentators citing a half-century tradition against armchair psychiatric diagnosis. That tradition of restraint dates to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy, when an array of psychiatrists went on record questioning his mental fitness (the antediluvian among us will recall that the Goldwater campaign slogan, “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,” was pastiched by opponents as “In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts”). The attempted intervention resulted in the so-called “Goldwater Rule,” adopted by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973, deeming it “unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination” of the subject. The importance of following this rule prompted the chair of psychiatry at Columbia medical school to urge colleagues to refrain from diagnosing Trump, in an op-ed titled “Maybe He’s Just a Jerk.”

The anniversary of Trump’s inauguration brought impeachment talk that was political as well as psychological. In “Trump’s Threat to Democracy,” Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cited a pair of political scientists who assessed his “dangerous authoritarian” tendencies. January also saw the revelation that Trump had ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, only to back off when the White House counsel threatened to resign; this disclosure led one former Justice Department official to comment that Mueller was assembling what was sure to be an “overwhelming case of obstruction of justice.” The ever-reasonable David Leonhardt, in a January 29 Times column, asked, “Is serious consideration of impeachment fair?” The answer, he said, “is yes.” Reviewing the case for obstruction of justice, Leonhardt compared it with articles of impeachment against Nixon, listing ten damning actions on Trump’s part that in his view meet the threshold for what legal experts call “corrupt intent.” And arguments for impeachment came from unexpected sources—such as John Yoo, assistant attorney general under George W. Bush, and author of the notorious “torture memo,” who argued that “if Mr. Trump has truly impeded a valid investigation, Congress should turn to impeachment.”  

During late winter and into spring, impeachment talk subsided a bit; but then, in the midst of midterm elections, it flared up again. That both parties are using the possibility of impeachment to their own ends reflects our polity’s ever-increasing polarization. In some progressive precincts, vowing to impeach is de rigueur for any candidate. On the other side, an April 9 front-page article in the Times reported on successful efforts to energize conservative voters by casting impeachment as part of the “deep-state” conspiracy that is a stock-in-trade of rightwing websites and talk radio. “You’ve seen it coming as surely as I have—a coup to overthrow the President of the United States,” reads one direct-mail pitch.

Nearly half the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in 1974 voted for at least one article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Today, Republican support would be essentially zero.

After Trump’s accusation that the FBI “spied” on his campaign, the Times wrote in a May 22 news analysis that the president had crossed a threshold, arguing that “when President Trump publicly demanded that the Justice Department open an investigation into the FBI’s scrutiny of his campaign contacts with Russia, he inched further toward breaching an established constraint on executive power.” Writing in The Guardian, my friend and former Amherst colleague Lawrence Douglas compares Trump’s efforts to squelch, stymie, and misdirect the investigation of him with Nixon’s similar attempts. Noting that “the fallout from the Saturday Night Massacre made impeachment all but inevitable, hastening Nixon’s resignation,” he addresses what he calls the “false” impression “that a president can only be impeached for having committed crimes and not, say, for his relentless demagogic assaults on constitutional norms and on the rule of law.” The implication is clear. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson counseled readers, “Stop waiting for the constitutional crisis that President Trump is sure to provoke. It’s here.”

In a May 28th New Yorker article, “The Impeachment War,”  Jeffrey Toobin surveys the current situation. Signs of looming danger for Trump include the possible cooperation of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Michael Cohen. “[T]he possibility of impeachment clearly exists,” Toobin writes, but adds: “if Congress has the evidence, and the will, to proceed.”

Regarding the evidence, Toobin revisits the historical instances of impeachment, including presidents and judges, noting that “impeachment cases are always about the politics of the moment.” (Gerald Ford, who led a 1970 attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, commented that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”) Detailing a list of particulars that would form the potential case against Trump, he quotes Jamie Raskin, Democrat and Vice Chair of the Judiciary Committee—and a constitutional law professor—concluding that “it’s hard to think of a more impeachable President in American history.” Though he doesn’t say so directly, it’s clear that Raskin views the president as a Grifter-in-Chief. “Trump has turned the federal government into a money-making operation,” Raskin says, “which is just what the Framers feared.”

As for the will, Toobin explores the grassroots-versus-establishment split among Democrats, between those who favor impeachment, like the billionaire Tom Steyer, who has poured at least $40 million into NeedToImpeach.com, and the party’s leaders, who remain hesitant. Nancy Pelosi sees “no way to do impeachment in a bipartisan way right now.” Jerrold Nadler, the New York congressman who would head the House Judiciary Committee in a Democratic Congress, expresses similar concerns, saying that “an appreciable faction” of the opposing party—however grudgingly—would have to support it. Nearly half the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in 1974 voted for at least one article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Today, Republican support would be essentially zero. Toobin quotes Lindsey Graham on what he views as the political disaster that the Clinton impeachment became for the Republican Party. “It has to be bipartisan,” Graham says, “or it’s going to be a failure.”

If Trump were removed, it would seal a capsule of toxic resentment—a big one—within the body politic that would poison our society for decades to come.

But what does failure mean? Failure to convict? Or something more than that? And failure for whom? Republicans are convinced that if the Democrats win the House, Pelosi’s caution will evaporate, and she’ll capitulate to what Ted Cruz calls the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” rampant in her party. I don’t doubt that if the Democrats somehow ginned up the requisite numbers not only in the House, but the Senate as well, they’d have those articles up and running faster than you can say “John Dean.”

Would that be good for America, as our president likes to say? Doubts have been expressed by many liberals, in op-eds like this one by political scientist Greg Weiner, titled “How Not to Impeach,” insisting that impeachment would have to proceed “with a gravity that will reconcile the public, including both Mr. Trump’s base and his most intense critics, to the answers.” Reconcile Trump’s base to impeachment? This is not going to happen. More like the opposite. Impeachment is the nullification of a popular vote, Jerry Nadler points out. As he told Toobin, “What you don’t want are recriminations for the next twenty years— ‘We won the election, you stole it.’” If Trump were removed, it would seal a capsule of toxic resentment —a big one—within the body politic that would poison our society for decades to come.

For those who continue to gasp in disbelief at Trump’s latest egregious violation of presidential and institutional norms, or reckless utterance, or overnight about-face in policy, and ask themselves how much longer this can go on, the answer is simple: as long as the votes for impeachment are not there. And that in turn depends on the persistence of bedrock support among red-state voters who show no sign whatsoever of changing their mind, who actively relish every display of liberal revulsion over Trump. Numbers are HUGE to Trump, and not merely as flattery, but as an insurance policy. Unless and until events trigger a Nixon-like erosion of support, his conduct will remain—well, unimpeachable.

Toobin writes that many impeachment skeptics among Democrats have established threshold actions on the part of Trump—firing Mueller, firing Rosenstein—that would induce them to change their position. But would any of that matter? As long as Trump retains a sufficient red-state base to fend off a two-thirds Senate vote, he will be immunized against conviction. Until a Republican Senator shows up in the Oval Office to deliver the message that Barry Goldwater delivered to Nixon—“Mr. President, we don’t have the votes”—he will stay.

And so what if, as seems likely, Democrats can impeach, but not convict? Is it worth it to put on the record the firm opinion of a majority of our elected leaders that Trump is corrupt, even if they can’t get rid of him? In his column back in January, David Leonhardt acknowledged that Congressional Republicans have “zero interest” in impeachment, but urged Democrats to “set aside realpolitik” and move ahead anyway. The idea is that if you are convinced that a president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, you are obligated to go ahead and inscribe that belief onto the historical record.

As I’ve said, I’m ambivalent about all of this. For most of the past year, I have steadfastly opposed the option. Better to work as hard as we can to ensure that he is voted out of office in 2020 rather than fan the flames of resentment and rancor. But now I’m not so sure. Hardly a day passes without my experiencing some combination of embarrassment, anger, and disbelief at the words and deeds of the president. Call it Trump Derangement. Call it reason and a sense of historical perspective. Call it anything. Just get him out of there.

Trump and impeachment. Damned if you don’t...and probably if you do.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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