To impeach, or not to impeach? That, apparently, is the question.
As Democrats prepare to assume power in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010 (if the government ever reopens, that is), they will immediately be faced with the prospect of formally censuring Donald Trump for the various high crimes and misdemeanors he has rather thunderously committed both before and during his disgraceful presidency.
As the precise nature and extent of those transgressions come ever-more-clearly into focus, the 60-odd percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s job performance should ask themselves the following: Should Trump be impeached? If so, when? And if he is actually removed from office, will the whole miserable ordeal have been worth it?
The correct answers, by the way, are “probably, “not yet,” and “you bet your sweet bippy.”
Before we go any further, let us acknowledge that no discussion on this subject is complete without the immortal observation in 1970 by then-Congressman Gerald Ford that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that a term like “high crimes and misdemeanors” has any inherent, consistent meaning beyond “something a president really, really shouldn’t do.” As any constitutional scholar will tell you, impeaching a high-ranking official is more of a political act than a legal one. Because “impeachable offense” is such a broad and vaguely-defined term (as the Founders intended), the argument about whether a particular president has committed a particular offense is bound to be exactly that: an argument.
Accordingly, the only meaningful circumstance under which to indict Donald Trump with a bill of particulars—let alone evict him from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—is when a wide cross-section of Congress and the American public—left, right and center—agrees that such charges are warranted and legitimate, and not merely the product of a partisan witch hunt (to coin a phrase).
It’s not enough to say, for instance, “Donald Trump paid a stripper $130,000 to conceal an extramarital affair; therefore, he deserves to be removed from office.” Plainly, the history of the presidency would suggest otherwise. More to the point, in November 2016 a hefty minority of American voters knew full well what kind of man Trump was (see “Access Hollywood, tape of”) and voted for him anyway. Are we really going to overturn the results of a presidential election because the winner turned out to be slightly more of a scumbag than we understand at the time?
To my mind, the stronger case for getting rid of Trump pre-2020 concerns his various (and apparently ongoing) financial entanglements with certain foreign powers and his bottomless obfuscations of the same—a scenario that, if it’s as bad as it looks, would suggest the commander-in-chief, for purely selfish reasons, is not always acting in the best interests of the United States. There’s a word for that, and it rhymes with “sneezin’.”
The problem is, the science is not yet in on whether Trump is guilty of any of the above, let alone of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election and/or attempting to obstruct the investigation thereof. Robert Mueller has spent 19 months carefully and methodically trying to get to the bottom of this web of lies and intrigue, and it would seem common courtesy to let him see it through to the end before jumping to any conclusions—yes, even ones that seem perfectly obvious to the untrained eye.
Why is that, ladies and gentlemen? Because unless the case for impeaching—and convicting—President Trump is absolutely rock-solid and airtight—such that a chunk of Republican senators are all-but-forced to vote with their Democratic counterparts—Trump will still be president at the end of the process, and presumably more bitter, more vengeful and more uncompromising toward his perceived enemies than he already is today. If Trump views himself as above the law now, just imagine how he’ll behave following a Senate trial that finds him not guilty of all charges.
To quote Omar in The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
That leaves my third question: Would a successful impeachment be worth it? That is, would Mike Pence be an improvement over Trump in the Oval Office?
Sorry, liberals, but the answer is yes.
However I might have felt about the vice president on January 20, 2017—with respect to his puritanical views about women and gays in particular and his pathological dishonesty in general—what the last two years have taught me, beyond all doubt, is that the devil you know is preferable to the devil who doesn’t believe in democratic institutions and hate-tweets at 3 o’clock in the morning.
To a left-winger like me, Pence may well be the devil—über-conservative, ultra-religious and utterly shameless in his pursuit of raw power—but he also possesses the gifts of silence, self-control and subtlety, which would amount to a necessary and welcome balm on the national psyche in a post-Trump America. As with the aforementioned Gerald Ford in 1974, a President Pence would represent such a profound temperamental shift at the top of the executive branch that we just might forget this whole Trump thing ever happened, and collectively return to a pre-2016 mindset whereby we don’t wake up every morning in a cold sweat, wondering what unholy mess the president will get us into today.
Mike Pence is no statesman, but he can play one on TV. He may be a religious fanatic, but at least he worships a god who isn’t himself. He may have an antiquated view of the female sex, but at least he only sleeps with one woman at a time (at most). He may share Trump’s contemptuous attitude toward America’s counterparts on the world stage, but there’s little chance he will upend a half-century of foreign policy without so much as a heads-up to our allies and our own department of defense.
This may seem cold comfort to those who wish all presidents could be as competent and classy as, say, our most recent previous one, but we mustn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. That, in so many words, is what got us here in the first place.