Even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tries to put impeachment talk on the back burner within her own party, Justin Amash became the first Republican Congressman to call for it. This weekend on Twitter, as the Founders intended, Amash wrote “Mueller’s report identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.”
Amash goes on to say impeachment simply requires “an official has engaged in careless, abusive, corrupt, or otherwise dishonorable conduct.”
Of course tweets are not Articles of Impeachment to be voted on, Mueller’s Report specifically does not indict Trump for obstruction, the Report does not state the reason for not indicting Trump is because he is president, and the Constitution does not include “careless, abusive, corrupt, or otherwise dishonorable conduct” as grounds for impeachment.
People may not like any of that, but those are the starting and ending points on impeachment and simply repeating an alternate version cannot change things. So this all may be little more than grandstanding by Amash.
But alongside Amash’s tweets are dozens of similar bleats from politicians and blasts from the media demanding Trump be impeached. Cheerleaders gloat impeachment isn’t a judicial process but a “political” one, their main takeaway being less rigorous standards apply (Amash stated there is no obligation to show even probable cause a crime was committed to impeach, you can just accuse willy-nilly) and somehow that’s a good thing. Many express near-joy the constitutional requirement for impeachment, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” isn’t defined in the law so it can be anything a partisan House wants it to be heading into an election. Somehow that’s also a good thing for a democracy they otherwise see under threat.
What the calls for impeachment show in amplitude they lack in detail, the specifics Trump must be impeached for. You know, like when a case goes to court instead of when one is trying to make headlines? The so-called best versions, as with Amash, simply refer back to Mueller’s own didn’t-reach-indictment non-conclusions and leave it there, as if the Report says something clearly it does not say obliquely. The worst ramble about the end of democracy, damage to the Constitution, corruption, and cite the libretto from Hamilton as their snappy summation. What they all do, from Amash to Trevor Noah, is rely on assumed agreement with their audience Trump is guilty. Of something.
The only specific pseudo-justification comes from a sub-group who sorta kinda admits the Mueller “road map” is a bit fuzzy on actual guilt, but who sees impeachment proceedings as some sort of super-investigative process that would take another shot at finding chargeable crimes.
This strategy becomes clearer when one looks at the real road map: Democrats and the media have been trying to remove Trump from office even before he took office. The Electoral College was going to not vote him in, or the Emoluments Clause or the 25th Amendment would shove him aside. The path forward jelled in early January 2017, even before the inauguration, as strategic leaks from the intelligence community pushed Russiagate to the fore. Trump was a Russian agent, the Manchurian Candidate. The nice folks in the Deep State would investigate, and their Report would segue smoothly into impeachment proceedings just in time for the 2020 election season.
After the Report showed there was no collusion or conspiracy with the Russkies, the Democrats and media pivoted as one, literally overnight, claiming (failed) obstruction of a Report which cleared Trump of treason, that was the real crime all along. The only problem was the Report did not support obstruction as grounds for impeachment either. So in a wink of an eye, the new plan was for the House to subpoena documents, call witnesses, and conduct a re-investigation into whatever it was Mueller failed to uncover.
This belief in the investigative magic of the House ignores the vast powers already brought to bear, including the surveillance which proceeded Mueller’s work and provided the fodder for those early perjury traps against Flynn, Papadopoulos, et al. Mueller used the threat of jail time to pressure people into cooperating, in the end producing little actionable material. The House thinking it will find the smoking gun Mueller missed also ignores the entrapment ops the FBI ran against the Trump campaign, which also produced little beyond excuses for more surveillance.
The Democratic/media actions post-Report — making up their own versions of what Mueller meant to say — beg the question of why not just ask Bob Mueller? The White House is not blocking his testimony, and the House has not subpoenaed him. Still, no testimony is scheduled while “negotiations” take place between Mueller and the Committees. For a nation supposedly in crisis there doesn’t seem to be too much of a rush. The Report has been out for close to two months.
Or maybe Democrats are not in a hurry to call Mueller because they don’t want to hear him answer why he did not indict anyone new. Maybe Dems don’t want to have Mueller say how early he realized the Steele Dossier was garbage but still kept silent? Maybe Dems don’t want Mueller talking about the origins of the Russia investigation? Maybe the Dems really don’t want Mueller to testify at all. Leave him off-stage, where they can put words into his mouth. Those are sharp questions when the simple answer, just ask Mueller, is replaced by a complex set of subpoenas and judicial challenges under the shadow of impeachment proceedings.
And with that it is time to take a deep breath and consider what impeachment is really about.
Impeachment allows Congress to overturn an election. And that is a very, very big deal. The Constitution vests ultimate power in The People. Throwing their choice out via impeachment is in a way the ultimate undemocratic act.
What impeachment also is not is a midterm check of “fitness.” It is not a constitutional pause for a referendum on how the president is doing. It is not a way to resolve differences of opinion, policy or propriety. The Founders were well aware how parliamentary systems could easily expel leaders with votes of no confidence in such situations, and chose something very different for America. They gave great sanctity to having a president serve his full term.
Impeachment is also not a way to bypass other investigative tools to allow a partisan House to poke around inside a president’s decisions, pre-election business deals, and personal life, or to amass info short of actual impeachable evidence as campaign dirt on the public dollar.
This final conception of impeachment, an expedient to get around Trump refusing to comply with various subpoenas, is particularly odious. The claim we are in a constitutional crisis because the White House is contesting document requests, what Nancy Pelosi calls Trump’s “self impeachment,” is nonsense. Contesting subpoenas thought to be too broad or irrelevant is an inherent part of due process and is nothing new or unique to the Trump administration. What would be unique is to open impeachment hearings as a work around to having the courts rule, as they anyways have, on the push-pull between executive and legislative branches.
The closest the United States ever came to forcing a president out of office was with Richard Nixon in 1974, and much is being made in 2019 that one of the charges against him was obstruction of justice. But things then were very different.
Nixon’s obstruction had clear underlying crimes behind it, as Republican operatives broke into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate building, and a similar break in to Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. The latter, often left out of “Watergate” history, was to gather blackmail material or discrediting information to use against the Pentagon Papers’ leaker.
Nixon’s obstruction took the form of paying cash from a slush fund to the operatives to buy their silence or to have them commit perjury. Nixon sought information from the CIA to use against his enemies. He personally and unambiguously ordered a cover-up. His own White House counsel testified against him. Watergate burglar James McCord stated in writing his testimony, some of which was perjured, was compelled by pressure from the Attorney General. Audio tapes of Nixon actually committing these acts existed. Nixon defied a Supreme Court order to release the tapes, fired the Special Prosecutor who drove that process, and attempted to seize control of the investigation via a new prosecutor. Now that is what real obstruction, and the evidence to prove, it looks like.
All of the above preceded the actual Articles of Impeachment. By the time the case was moving to the Senate for a decision, there was no need for pundits to speculate on road maps, no need for explainer articles, and no dots left to connect. It makes the current situation — a Report which does not charge obstruction, with no underlying crime, serving as the basis for the House to re-investigate those same none events via a scattershot of subpoenas and testimony — seem silly.
Nancy Pelosi is right to put the brakes on impeachment. Not because of some political calculation, but because turning the Constitution’s provision for over-turning an election into a hunt for dirt, or as a way around the check and balances of the courts, chips away at the foundation of democracy.