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Okay, Let's Impeach the President
This post, like all De Civ posts prior to November 2021, was originally published at my WordPress blog. It imported badly to Substack, and I suggest you read it there instead: https://www.jamesjheaney.com/2016/05/03/de-civs-stop-trump-delegate-tracker-final-entry/
The initial House resolution to impeach President Trump is WAY shorter than this post. It doesn't have as many jokes, though.
Well, that's quite a headline!
My left-wing readers may have smiled at it, pleased I've come around, perhaps even developing a Strange New Respect for me. So let's start this off by making sure this post makes nobody happy:
I can hardly stand my left-wing friends right now.
They want President Trump's head on a pike—for Ukraine, for Justice Kavanaugh, for being a pillock, whatever gets an impeachment through. I sympathize! President Trump stinks! He's leagues better than I expected, but that isn't a high bar... and I speak as someone who agrees with a lot of Trump's agenda.
But my left-wing friends are unable to admit, to even the tiniest degree, that Trump is the victim of a double standard. I pointed it out in my last piece, and the only response I got to that piece from anyone on the left was spin so hard a whirling dervish couldn't keep up.
President Clinton's perjury? "Well, that was just a blow job." Never mind the clear-cut federal crime!
President Obama lied to the nation and abused his interpretive authority (in pretty much the same way Trump did with his "emergency powers" declaration) so that he could fork over millions of dollars in ransom money to an adversarial terrorist state. He also violated the plain text of the Constitution and stomped all over the separation of powers to satisfy—by openly tyrannical means—the policy demands of his political base. "Well, he was just doing what he thought best for the nation," my left-wing friends reply, "His heart was in the right place!" as though good intentions (even if Obama really had them) undid one jot of the lasting damage Obama's imperial will did to the Constitution.
How about that illegal war in Libya? "Well... but... well... Iran-Contra!" Never mind the tu quoque (which is called "whataboutism" only when the Left dislikes it), never mind the fact Reagan would've been impeached had his involvement been proved. Never mind that Reagan would've deserved it! The holy name of Saint Obama the "Scandal-Free" must be protected unsullied, so the fact that he was guilty as sin of half a dozen impeachable offenses must be explained away by whatever means are at hand.
It is one thing to say that President Trump should be impeached for obstruction of justice. It is quite another thing to say that Trump should be convicted of obstruction while simultaneously maintaining—even after all these years—that President Clinton's impeachment for obstruction was just a partisan witch hunt. But that's where my friends on the Left are at right now.
They're hardly alone. I usually listen to NPR in the car, because I maintain a scrupulously left-oriented media diet. But, as of this week, I can't do it anymore. Their blindingly intense double standard, presented as simple objective reporting, sends my blood pressure through the roof. For example, last week I was listening to 1A while they dissected the Ukraine story. They rambled about the "take care" clause for a while in discussing whether President Trump had authority to withhold funds appropriated by Congress, contending that a violation of the "take care" clause is an impeachable offense—without even acknowledging the fact that President Obama was headed to the Supreme Court for their first "take care" case in decades (the one he couldn't escape via "standing" loophole) when Trump won the election (and mooted the case). The folks at 1A went on in this and various other veins for a while, charging Trump with various crimes without acknowledging, even with a passing dismissal, that several of the same crimes were committed by several of Trump's predecessors.
I finally slammed the power button when the analyst offhandedly noted, "Of course, the United States Congress would never appropriate money to an adversary." True! It wouldn't! So that time President Obama took money from the Treasury in contravention of Congress's clear will, lied to everyone about it, and sent it as a ransom payment to the Ayatollah? Despite that bit where the Constitution says "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law?" Straight down the memory hole.
This is true across the board. To a man, all the folks I know on the Left--including the people I really like and respect on the Left--have become the basest partisans, desperate to convince themselves that President Trump's abuses of power are singularly deserving of impeachment while closing their eyes to the sins of their own heroes. They've become a thousand little Breitbarts, lying to everyone—especially themselves—with the intensity of a teenager trying to persuade his girlfriend that they won't get pregnant if they skip the condom just this once.
When this all got started, I had hoped that impeaching and convicting President Trump might help heal the wounds of hyperpartisanship. Just as Democrats' refusal to convict a guilty-as-sin President in 1999 drove wedges into American politics that have only gotten deeper, perhaps Republicans, if they were willing to convict, could take the first step toward pulling some of the wedges out again.
Impeachment could also, I hoped, lay the foundation for a new era of tamer, less imperial presidencies. After all, if Trump could be impeached and removed for relatively routine abuses of office, surely Democrats would be more circumspect about committing the same abuses of office next time they're in power.
These were stupid hopes. America is long past the possibility of healing its partisan rifts through political goodwill. America is very nearly past the ability of partisans to share the same reality. The Trump impeachment process has become the latest in a line of increasingly potent scissor statements. Even I, the blue-state ex-Republican compassionate conservative who prides himself on an ability to see all sides, see my left-wing opponents as scurrilous liars and hypocrites on this one. God knows how they see it.
I'm certain of this: if we support Trump's conviction, we will get absolutely zero credit (and no quarter) from the Left for doing so. It would not establish a new bipartisan standard for presidential misconduct. It would not bring about reconciliation in America's cold civil war. It would not restore the slightest degree of executive restraint. The next Lois Lerner would make a clean getaway down the memory hole, just like last time. Conviction would not reverse the slow war on religion one jot. The same people screaming bloody murder over emoluments would applaud—indeed already are applauding—Beto O'Rourke's promise to disembowel the First and Second Amendments. They don't give a damn about the Constitution; all they want is the scalp of Donald J. Trump.
Already, we see this playing out in microcosm, thanks to Mitt Romney's recent flirtation with a vote to convict. Romney's choice is not being understood, on the Left, as evidence of Romney's fundamental decency and fair-mindedness, nor to the slightest degree as evidence that maybe Romney was an earnest guy who didn't deserve to be smeared as a racist, sexist monster when he ran against Saint Obama. Instead, it is being understood as further evidence of how bad Trump is. After all, the logic goes, if even a spineless, immoral monster like Mitt Romney is considering abandoning the President, Trump must be the devil himself! (Not that anyone on the Left believes in the devil anymore; Trump is far more hated and feared than Lucifer in progressive circles.) Of course, there is a bit of Strange New Respect, but that never lasts more than one millisecond longer than it needs to for political advantage. Just ask media darling John McCain, who was suddenly accused of "veering right" and becoming evil once his mavericky maverickness stopped being targeted at other Republicans and started getting in the way of Saint Obama's Oval Office.
Since we cannot expect one iota of reciprocity from the Left, the case for impeaching President Trump is difficult. Impeachment is a legal process, but with a huge built-in political component. Why would a partisan official ever vote to convict a President of his own party, especially when the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" is so vague? (EDIT: Here's a valuable history of the term and its meaning.) Traditionally, the strongest answer is fairness. You want to throw out your guy when he does crimes, so that the other side will throw out their guy when he does crimes. That isn't going to happen here; the other side's "standard" is that Republicans deserve impeachment and Democrats do not, and any rationalization that justifies this in particular instances is valid.
We should impeach President Trump anyway.
On the legal side, there's a pretty decent case. Trump's Ukraine scandal has only deepened since my last post about it. Indeed, it's deepened significantly in the couple of days since I started writing this one! It looks more and more like President Trump's investigation into Hunter Biden cannot be passed off, even pretextually, as an anti-corruption investigation. Instead, evidence is mounting that Trump was violating the law of the land by impounding security assistance for Ukraine... and worse, that he did it in order to extort the Ukrainian government into making damaging statements about the Bidens. It's a very bad thing to condition aid on an investigation into a political opponent; it's an order of magnitude worse to condition aid on that investigation being announced on CNN. (See page 12.) I'm not sure this is "launching an unconstitutional war in Libya" bad, but it's pretty bad. In a perfect world, we would impeach for this alone.
Meanwhile, Trump's response to the scandal has been, itself, scandalous. Remember that time President Trump called for Rep. Adam Schiff (who is, in fairness, a massive tool) to be "questioned" and possibly charged with the capital crime of treason? (Twice?) He did that because of something Rep. Schiff said on the floor of the House. Schiff's comments (dishonest as they were) are not only protected by the First Amendment, but also by the Speech Or Debate Clause of the Constitution. Furthermore, President Trump's definition of "treason" diverges yugely from the Constitution's Treason Clause. What the President called for, via an official U.S. government channel (his Twitter feed, God help us), was a flagrantly unconstitutional arrest and potentially the execution of a political opponent whose speech was doubly protected under our Constitution. It is my considered opinion that, when a President calls for the Constitution to be broken, we do not need to wait for him to actually do it to remove him from office.
The Founders would probably also take a pretty dim view of the President's other recent tweet, wherein he misquoted Robert Jeffress in a prediction-cum-encouragement of civil war. "Fomenting revolution" is certainly protected speech for First Amendment purposes, so Trump could not be jailed for it, but it is such a disgraceful abuse of the presidential office that I've no doubt every Founder would agree it constitutes a "high crime and misdemeanor."
It is no defense to say that we shouldn't take Trump's tweets seriously, because this is just how he is. He's the President of the United States! We have given him truly awesome powers, and those powers come with certain responsibilities that the rest of us do not share. One of them is to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution," not openly call for it to be trampled!
On top of all that, Trump has announced a blanket refusal to turn over documents related to the investigation. This is the exact same reason a bipartisan coalition held Eric Holder in contempt of Congress... but Trump's resistance is even more extreme. Holder should've been impeached. And, as Jim Geraghty reminds us, if Holder should've faced consequences, so should Trump.
So much the worse for him, President Trump has left himself open to impeachment on several other fronts. While I've been broadly supportive of his right to retain ownership over his businesses while President, the Emoluments Clause does not have a "...unless you are a billionaire" clause, and President Trump's hinky finances and open self-dealing have reached appalling levels. The Emoluments Clause, forbidding such things, is incredibly broad.
And then there was that whole Russia thing. Of course, the Russia investigation was ludicrously overblown (by these same desperate partisans), but President Trump, through malice or ignorance, did his best to throw up obstacles to the investigation. I doubt he technically violated the federal obstruction statute, because it mostly does not apply to the president... but one big reason it doesn't is so the House and Senate can judge for themselves what counts as presidential obstruction. It's ludicrous to suggest the President is, uniquely among Americans, free to obstruct justice however he wants. And, while Volume I of the Mueller report (about collusion) did largely exonerate President Trump, Volume II (about obstruction) was a very bad look for the President. (It starts on page 209 here.) What we saw the President do during the Russia investigation sure feels to me like something the Founders would recognize, broadly, as obstruction of justice amounting to "high crimes and misdemeanors."
So we have ample legal reason to impeach.
But, as I've argued, there's been ample legal reason to impeach and convict plenty of recent presidents. Impeachment is both a legal and a political process--as everyone defending a scoundrel President (whether a Trump or a Clinton) will constantly remind you. The most important political reason for impeaching Trump, "holding presidents of both parties to a fair standard," is off the table; Democrats are being wildly unfair to Trump, they were wildly unfair about the scrutiny of Obama, and, when the time comes, they will be wildly unfair about the treatment of President Ocasio-Cortez. But I think there are other sound political reasons to impeach.
First, the progressives are being base hypocrites, but conservatives don't have to respond in kind. Indeed, there's a lot of political value in being the party that, when the rubber hits the road, isn't completely hypocritical. If we impeach Trump, conservatives will be able to present ourselves to the voters as the team that recognized what our guy was doing wrong and threw him out, while the progressives will forever be the movement that acquitted a perjured rapist. It'd make conservatives look good with independent voters for a long time.
Second, the conservative movement politically benefits when it is able to look itself in the mirror in the morning. Remember how we spent years taking desperate action because we said--correctly--that the government was spending way too much money and needed to cut back, even in the teeth of a recession? And then Republicans took power and... immediately started trying to spend even more money? Even though the recession was over and countercyclical policy demanded that we should cut back even more sharply? Instead, Trump and our "Tea Party" Congress broke the $4 trillion barrier for the first time. Our peacetime budget deficit is now locked on a course to break the debt record set during World War II. Until the Obama years, no peacetime budget ever approached this level of irresponsibility. And now any Republican or conservative who ever complains about big-spending Democrats, ever again, will--rightly--get openly laughed at. Conservatives betrayed their principles, on the theory that the Democrats were just as bad... and now we've lost not just a powerful short-term political issue, but a key policy argument with an impact that will last for decades.
Abandoning our principles about the imperial presidency would be like that, but much worse. The budget deficit, in the end, comes down to money. We can borrow, tax, cut, and perhaps even print our way out of it, albeit at tremendous cost to Millennials, Zoomers, and their children. But if Republicans ratify the Obama precedent that Presidents can pretty much do whatever the hell they want, damn the Constitution... then we will become co-authors of the Constitution's final unraveling. I don't think most people realize how close we already are to the brink. The Constitution in practice bears almost no resemblance to the Constitution in theory, or even to the practice of the Constitution as recently as a century ago. (No, seriously, read that Thomas H. Crown thread I just linked.)
We all act as though our system has an infinite amount of give in it, that it can tolerate excess and abuse and excess and abuse year after year, term after term, without limit... but a lot of our domestic politics right now looks like the Roman Republic in the second and first centuries B.C., as the Republic teetered toward dysfunction, civil strife, and, ultimately, the Principate. The Principate, started by Caesar Augustus, was a system in which everyone pretended that the Senate still controlled Rome, while actually allowing Augustus to rule (variously) as "consul," "princeps senatus," and "tribune." The legislative branch of Roman government became essentially ornamental. Augustus went to great lengths to maintain the fiction that the Republic still existed, but, with the hindsight of history, we all recognize what he really was: the first Roman Emperor.
I'm frankly not convinced, at this point, that the American slide from Republic into Empire can be stopped. We've dismantled so many guardrails, both unwritten and written. But surely one of our last, best hopes is that Congress will begin to stand up to presidential abuses of power, from both parties' presidents, using its impeachment power. While the prospects look grim from where I'm sitting--just reread the first half of this article--we won't have a prayer if Republicans ratify the Democrats' position that constitutional violations don't matter if they come from your own party.
Finally, let's zoom in on the near-term politics of the situation. There's a presidential election next year. President Trump is pretty likely to lose it. Last time out, Trump was enormously blessed to be running against the second-least-popular person in America, Hillary Clinton. (The least popular person was President Trump, which is how he lost the popular vote.) That won't be happening next year. Trump's opponents are some of the most popular politicians in America.
People say, "Oh, the polls got it all wrong in 2016," but, actually, the polls did fine. (The pundits, especially certain pundits who fancied themselves pollsters, bungled it horribly.) One year before the 2016 election, the polls were predicting a close race between Clinton and Trump, with Clinton holding a slight popular-vote edge but the electoral college a tossup. They were still predicting that on election night. They were right.
Today? Head-to-head polls show Trump losing to, uh, everyone, typically by large margins. In much-needed Minnesota, he's losing to Biden by 12 and Warren by 11. It is certainly true that general election polls a year from the election are messy, often pretty far off from the final result. But it's also true that these numbers are unusually bad for a president hoping to win re-election, the crosstabs reveal problems that have no obvious solutions for the President, and his approval ratings are mired in the low 40's. They could recover (Obama's did), but, if they don't, Trump has very little chance at winning a presidential election.
Worse: these are Trump's numbers in the middle of a booming economy. What happens if there's a recession? A recession right now is pretty close to a tossup... and, as the indicators slowly flip, one by one, from green to red (which has been happening for months now), as China continues to escalate its antics and Brexit bleeds Europe's resilience in the face of Eurozone dysfunction and a global trade war, I'm becoming more pessimistic than the consensus.
If President Trump were removed, it would give us President Mike Pence. Better: the Senate, in convicting Trump, could (and should) bar him from holding future office, thereby making it impossible for him to run again. Leave aside the fairly obvious fact that Mike Pence would be a better President than Trump (because he would do all the good things Trump does but with way less of the bad and none of the erratic insanity). Instead, notice his favorability score and compare it to Trump's. True, Pence is not quite as popular as Joe Biden. But he's a lot less unpopular than Donald Trump.
In a race where Republicans look set to get beat and beat pretty good, it seems like good sense, not just for the good of the country but for the good of the party, to change horses, as fast as possible. I can't promise Pence would win, nor can I deny the impeachment dynamic introduces big risks... heck, I think there's still a solid one-in-three chance Trump could win in 2020... but, overall, I think the odds that conservatives retain influence in the White House are considerably better with Candidate Pence than with Candidate Trump. With the next Supreme Court justice on the line, shouldn't we do everything we can to maximize our odds... even if it means throwing the current president under the bus?
Heck, given the fact that Vice President Pence doesn't share the President's talent for shotgunning himself in the foot, maybe, if Pence were President, we might even get some policy through Congress before the election. How 'bout that infrastructure bill we keep hearing about?
Yes, conviction means the insufferable Bob Garfield of NPR's On The Media and millions like him get to notch a huge win, at a discount, without a jot of introspection, and thus will learn nothing. But, given everything, I think that's a price worth paying.
So, yeah, okay. Let's impeach the President.