Such reflections highlight the conflict between principled and prudential considerations among Democrats. Do we impeach a president because it will help us, or because it is right? Covering the 2020 presidential campaign trail, the Times reported that most Democratic candidates have been “tentative” about impeachment—taking the temperature of voter sentiment while trying to walk a tightrope between the party’s new progressive firebrands and its leadership. “For now,” the article observes, “most of the candidates feel no pressure to demand Mr. Trump’s impeachment because they simply do not hear a mass clamoring for it on the campaign trail.” The latest reports continue to suggest that Democratic voters place impeachment low on their list of urgent priorities; at town-hall meetings across the country, audience members asked their representatives about health care, immigration, and the 2020 election—but hardly at all about impeachment.
So it is not surprising that candidates such as Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke have waffled, professing their “personal” desire to see Trump impeached while emphasizing the political complexities. Elizabeth Warren alone has taken an unambiguous stance, declaring that “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, and suggest that both the current and future Presidents would be free to abuse their power.” Her remarks raise the question of civic obligation: If a president has committed an impeachable offense, should he not be impeached? The same day Warren tweeted her salvo, Times columnist Charles M. Blow, an implacable Trump foe, made the case for impeachment. Calling the Mueller report “damning,” he dismissed the objections put forward in what he calls “the ‘failed impeachment’ theory,” and countered that in his view, “there is no such thing as a failed impeachment.” Noting that none of the three prior instances of presidential impeachment or impending impeachment in U.S. history ended in a conviction, Blow called an impeachment vote in the House “the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president,” and observed that “I can think of no president who has earned this rebuke more than the current one.”
The argument among Democrats makes frequent recourse to the two presidential impeachments of recent decades. Looking back at the impeachments of Nixon and Clinton, Times reporter Adam Liptak notes that in the wake of the Mueller report, Trump has cited Article II of the Constitution and insisted that since there were “no crimes by me, no misdemeanors...you can’t impeach.” Liptak asserts that Trump “failed to take account of what the framers meant by ‘other high crimes and misdemeanors.’” Quoting constitutional scholars who hold that offenses contained within that catchall formulation must match treason and bribery—the two specifically adduced impeachable offenses—in gravity, Liptak poses the question: “Does Mr. Trump’s conduct, as described in the Mueller report, clear that high bar?” His answer: “The two most recent impeachment proceedings...indicate that it could.”
By way of supporting argument, he cites constitutional scholars’ belief that obstruction of justice—the corrupt use of presidential power to thwart investigations—reaches the threshold for impeachment, and ticks off numerous examples of similarities between Nixon’s actions and the ones portrayed in the Mueller report—right down to the resignation of White House counsel Don McGahn, who expressly invoked a parallel to the Watergate investigation when he refused to fire Mueller, saying that he did not want to be “Saturday Night Massacre Bork.” Liptak notes that conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate is highly unlikely, but that “if the question is one of constitutional principle, there is reason to think Mr. Trump was a little too sanguine in his analysis.”
What is different, of course, is the context. The facts on the ground may suggest extensive similarity between the lawlessness of Nixon and Trump—but that ground itself, where the facts are being handled, has changed drastically. Senate Republicans today probably would not move against Nixon. And Democrats remain wary and divided. A new Times survey of how House Democrats view impeachment registers the split. Freshman Democrat Mary Scanlon of Pennsylvania, vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee, admits that “If we’re just looking at the facts, then we have the same facts that led to the impeachment of Richard Nixon.” But, she adds, there is “also a political calculation. What are the politics of initiating an impeachment if the Republican-led majority in the Senate doesn’t believe that this type of conduct warrants impeachment?” On the other side, four-term California Democrat Jared Huffman states that “if that president cannot face impeachment, then part of our constitutional responsibility is just a bunch of dead words.” He dismisses the worries of fellow Democrats as “self-serving readings of the tea leaves by folks who frankly don’t want to step up and make difficult decisions.”
Can you guess which Democrat is from a swing state?
Pushing back against the notion that impeachment might harm the prospects of the Democratic Party, Joe Lockhart, former White House press spokesman under Bill Clinton, offers the view that “leaving Donald Trump in office is not only good politics—it is the best chance for fundamental realignment of American politics in more than a generation.” Lockhart’s argument is that Trump is actually destroying the Republican Party, and impeachment might impede the process. His advice is to stay calm and have faith that over time, the hallmarks of Trumpism—relentless tax-cutting for the wealthy, “rampant xenophobia and race-based politics,” and a brazen and reckless denigration of the institutions of government—will prove massively unpopular with the rising generation of voters. Another two years of Trump may rankle, but will eventually spell “electoral doom” for the GOP. “I fully understand the historical imperative of holding the president accountable for his behavior,” Lockhart writes.
But I believe there is something bigger at stake. Allowing Mr. Trump to lead the Republican Party, filled with sycophants and weak-willed leaders, into the next election is the greater prize.... Trumpism equals Republicanism as long as Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket. And a real shift to progressivism in America will be delivered by a devastating rebuke of the president and his party, a rebuke that will return control of the Senate and state houses across the nation. Politics is always a gamble—and this is the best bet we’ve had in a long time.
Recently, journalist Elizabeth Drew put forth the opposing view in an op-ed titled “The Danger of Not Impeaching.” Drew argues that Congress must hold the president to account, no matter the outcome or the consequences. Calling the concerns of the Pelosi wing “understandable,” given that “impeachment could invite a wrenching partisan fight; render the party vulnerable to the charge that it’s obsessed with scoring points against Mr. Trump; and distract Democrats from focusing on legislation,” she argues that the alternative is worse. Even if Senate Republicans don’t vote to remove Trump, she holds, “a statement by the House that the president has abused his office is preferable to total silence from the Congress.” To support this contention, Drew invokes the Founding Fathers:
Madison and Hamilton didn’t say anything about holding off on impeachment because it would be politically risky. It’s hard to imagine they’d put political convenience on the same footing as the security of the Constitution. And the Democrats who prefer to substitute the 2020 election for an impeachment fight don’t appear to have considered the implications if Mr. Trump were to win: Would that not condone his constitutional abuses and encourage his authoritarian instincts?
Drew’s question is the same as Lockhart’s—pain now, or pain later?—but her answer is a mirror opposite to his. Democrats in Congress may be able to avoid a nasty, rancorous political fight now, but if they do, they will pay for it in the long run—not politically, but rather in the final reckoning of their “feckless” behavior by that ultimate judge, the future. Drew warns, “They’ll have to answer to history.”