Ask the typical conservative what he thinks about the looming, likely impeachment of one President Donald Trump, and he will likely turn the question around by indignantly claiming that liberals have been plotting to impeach Trump “since the day he was sworn in.”
As one such liberal, I can assure you this is incorrect. In fact, we have been plotting to impeach Trump since before he was sworn in.
Not that he hasn’t made it exceedingly easy to do so. The precise meaning of “impeachable offense” may well be in the eye of the beholder—Gerald Ford immortally called it “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history”—but it seems reasonable to conclude that the cumulative behavior of the sitting commander-in-chief, both before and during his tenure, amounts to a veritable buffet of disgracefulness wholly unbecoming of the highest office in the land.
The question isn’t “Has Trump committed an impeachable offense?” Rather, it’s “Which impeachable offense is the most offensive of them all?”
Is it the emoluments, i.e., Trump’s personal profiting from foreign dignitaries lodging at his many luxury hotels? Is it the campaign finance violations surrounding his silencing of Stormy Daniels mere days before the 2016 election? Is it attempting to collude with Russia to swing the election itself and covering up the subsequent investigation of same? Is it repeatedly putting in a good word for (or being silent about) the domestic terrorists who have attempted to murder his political opponents and/or members of the press?
Or—as Nancy Pelosi would argue—is it leaning on the leader of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, tacitly threatening to withhold millions of dollars in military aid if he doesn’t?
As Democrats and Republicans in Congress squabble about the precise nature of the president’s questionable July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky—was it extortion, a quid pro quo or a friendly suggestion?—let us remind ourselves that impeachment doesn’t require a specific act of criminality on the president’s part—or, indeed, a specific act of any sort.
As Republicans were quite happy to point out when they attempted to hound Bill Clinton from office in 1998, impeachment can simply be a referendum on a president’s character—that is, on his collective personal flaws as they relate to, and impinge upon, the carrying out of his constitutional duties as commander-in-chief. As no less than Alexander Hamilton wrote in no less than the Federalist Papers, objects of impeachment are “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
That’s a fairly open-ended standard for censure by the legislative branch, and in the face of Donald Trump, the case could scarcely be clearer or more damning. Surely, if Bill Clinton’s single lie about extramarital sex constituted a “violation of some public trust,” it stands to reason that Trump’s 13,000-or-so lies about just about everything—including extramarital sex—constitutes roughly the same thing, with interest.
As a moral issue, impeaching Trump is a question that answers itself. The real quandary—the practical one—is whether actually following through on the impeachment process will make any damn difference in the long run.
When it comes to this president—and this presidency—the closest we have to a statistical constant is the fact that virtually every scandal of Trump’s own making tends to fizzle out within 72 hours. Through the sheer volume of Trump’s offenses against common decency and the body politic, no single idiocy—however appalling—retains its outrageousness from one end of the week to the other before the next abomination takes its place. There have been exceptions to this rule, to be sure—Charlottesville and locking kids in cages chief among them—but they are, in fact, exceptional.
As such, are we so sure that impeachment, should it come, won’t be more than yet another ephemeral three-day story? That formally indicting Trump for various high crimes and misdemeanors, however legitimate, won’t be supplanted by some new, unrelated ridiculousness shortly after the official vote is tallied?
Political pundits have been breathlessly wagering about whether Trump’s impeachment would redound to the benefit of the left or the right come Election Day 2020. However, both conclusions assume that, 385 days from now, the electorate will even remember that impeachment was ever a thing.
Color me skeptical that they will—that impeachment may yet prove a mere minor episode in the reality TV show from hell that is America since November 8, 2016. That, like the two-year Mueller investigation that preceded it, it will evaporate like mist from the nation’s collective consciousness almost immediately after reaching its denouement.
The truth is that we may never know for sure what impact impeachment will have on the next election—we’re still arguing about the causes of the last one, with no consensus in sight—and this fact ought to be liberating for the Democratic Party. After all, so long as the consequences of moving forward with this inquiry remain indeterminate, there is all the more incentive to do the right thing for its own sake. “Tis not in mortals to command success,” intoned a character in Cato, George Washington’s favorite play. “[B]ut we’ll do more […] we’ll deserve it.”
Donald Trump should be impeached because he has abused the powers of his office above and beyond what should be tolerated by either Congress or the public. If he is to be re-elected in 2020, it might as well be with his full record of criminality on display for the electorate to either endorse or reject. In such a scenario, no voter could decently claim to have filled out his or her ballot under false pretenses. Everyone’s cards would be on the table, with no stone left unturned.
There are worse ways to run a presidential campaign.