In recent days, the Democrats have been obsessively arguing about two questions.
First, should they turn the country’s attention to an impeachment, or stay focused on policy arguments where they can gain ground against Trump? That way, presumably, they can oust him the old-fashioned way, in an election.
Second, should they move directly to an impeachment? Or should they let the House investigating committees take the lead?
Both of these debates miss the point.
Take the first debate. If some Democrats think that an impeachment will crowd out discussions of, say, debt relief for college students, or shoring up Social Security, or a massive public infrastructure program, or an expansion of Medicare, they misunderstand politics, and underestimate the voters.
People are actually capable of focusing on more than one thing. And the more Trump is consumed by defending himself against the corrupt reality of his presidency and calling on Republicans to spend political capital to save his sorry neck, the more he is weakened in general.
Moreover, as Elizabeth Warren put it so well, there is a constitutional duty to impeach, whether or not it is politically convenient. In fact, there is no contradiction between pursuing an impeachment and debating other issues where Trump’s position is unpopular.
And while an impeachment might rally Trump’s base, his base is far from a majority of voters. The facts that will come out will appall larger numbers of voters.
Some skeptics point to the fact that the Republican effort to impeach and convict Bill Clinton backfired and actually helped the Democrats. Please. Sex with an intern is disgusting—I was the rare liberal columnist in that era who wrote that Bill Clinton should resign—but it is not in the same category as selling out the country to the Russians or using the presidency to put the president above the law.
The second debate is even more of a false choice. Senator Warren is out with an explicit call for an impeachment, as are several of the militant House freshmen, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is trying to slow things down to let the house committees do their work. How about doing both things, in sequence?
At least four House committees are engaged. The House Judiciary Committee, under the very capable Jerry Nadler, is taking the lead. Nadler has already issued subpoenas for the full, uncensored Mueller report (stop calling it redacted!), and he has subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn.
In addition, the House Ways and Means Committee has demanded Trump’s tax returns. The House Intelligence Committee has demanded not only the full Mueller report, but the underlying foreign intelligence and counterintelligence developed in the course of the investigation.
The letter from the committee to the Justice Department was signed by both Chairman Adam Schiff and the ranking Republican, Devin Nunes. Schiff observed:
Nunes and I agree on very little when it comes to the Russia investigation, but we do agree on this, and that says something. The committee also needs to hear from Mueller and other key players directly, including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and relevant members of Mueller’s team and the intelligence community.
And the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Elijah Cummings, has subpoenaed other Trump financial information from Trump’s accountants.
This is just the way the process is supposed to work. After a few months, the evidence produced will logically feed into a formal impeachment. It would be premature to create a formal impeachment process now, just as it would be cowardly to discourage discussion of it.
In the Watergate affair, several House and Senate investigations produced evidence for more than a year before the impeachment process formally began only on May 9, 1974.
One other red herring: Some naysayers have contended that the entire impeachment process is a fool’s errand, because the Republican Senate will only vote not to convict.
This ignores history. Once an impeachment begins, it takes on a logic of its own. We don’t know what the investigations will produce, or at what point key Republican senators will opt for saving their own skins over sticking with Trump at all costs.
One way or another, we are now on a road to impeachment—just as the constitutional founders intended in a situation where a president decides that he is above the law.