By doing their jobs thoroughly and fairly, Robert Mueller and his team produced mass frustration. Those who hoped the report would dispel every cloud over Donald Trump, leaving clear skies for the remainder of his term, were disappointed. Those who wished for a steamer trunk full of smoking guns, which would cause Republicans to abandon him, were left to wander around baggage claim.
Democrats now have to grapple with the question that has loomed over Trump for most of his presidency: impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a special hose she uses to blast cold water on the idea, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running for president, has chosen to model “Minnesota nice.” At a CNN town hall Monday, she said, “I’m the jury here, so I am not going to predispose things.”
But the sentiment in the House to impeach Trump is building. Some Democrats running for president have signed on, including Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro.
I will be relieved if public outrage at Trump’s character and conduct grows so broad that Congress has to remove him from office. House hearings could help bring that about, as could the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. But the arguments made so far for impeachment only make it clear how far we are from there.
Warren offered her rationale in a CNN town hall Monday, rejecting fears of a voter backlash. “There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution,” she asserted. If other senators choose to accept what Trump has done, “then they should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.”
The idea that Republicans would be shamed by voting to keep Trump in office is charming but absurd. Mitch McConnell’s conscience will not be troubled if he enables vile behavior by a Republican president. If anything, it will cause him to swell with pride whenever he thinks of it.
Other progressives, however, are equally ready to dispense with caution. “Doing nothing when we are seeing blatant disregard of the United States Constitution, to our ethical norms, is dangerous,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who is running pro-impeachment TV ads, argues that anything less would set “a terrible precedent, undermining our constitutional system, and leaving it vulnerable to deeper damage.”
They have a point. Trump’s bacchanal of sleaze is a threat to the Constitution, American democracy and the rule of law. But responding to his misdeeds is an overwhelming task requiring ruthless discipline.
Democrats are in the position of combat medics at the scene of a horrific battle. They can’t immediately attend to every wounded soldier. They have to resort to triage, focusing on the highest priorities.
The very highest is defeating Trump in 2020. If Democrats in the House and Senate spend months trying to rally support for removing him, voters disgusted by partisan wars and gridlock could very well respond negatively – as they did to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
If the effort fails, as it is almost certain to do, it would let the president make a more convincing claim of exoneration and give his reelection campaign a lift. An acquittal in the Senate would look like a victory for Trump because it would be a victory for Trump.
Progressives insist that impeachment would not be a distraction from matters of greater importance to most people. They say Democrats can push for it while putting forth legislation on health care, student debt, racial and economic inequity, climate change and immigration.
But the question is not whether Democrats have the bandwidth to process it all; it’s whether the electorate does. Impeachment proceedings inevitably would monopolize public attention at the expense of crowd-pleasing policy plans.
As a matter of principle, impeachment is the right remedy for presidential deception, corruption and obstruction. But the political graveyards are full of elected officials who neglected to balance principle against public opinion.
While Trump has a high disapproval rating, Congress has a higher one. The people who would pursue impeachment don’t start with the benefit of the doubt. Clinton survived his impeachment. The Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich, did not.
For now, the House should uncover as much evidence as possible to expose Trump’s dishonesty and malevolence. Maybe then his removal would be a genuine possibility instead of a dream. But nothing should get in the way of ensuring that, next year, voters put an end to our national nightmare.