Donald Trump may not have conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election, but the Mueller report still shows a president with criminal disregard for the rule of law and constitutional government. And arguably it suggests that Congress should address this in accordance with what the report reminds us is “our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.”
If that is the recommendation, then it’s a recognition that democratic accountability in the American political system goes beyond elections. Each branch of government is empowered to check and challenge the others, and Congress has a specific obligation to hold the presidency to account between electoral cycles. Under ordinary circumstances, lawmakers use their oversight powers to keep an eye on the executive branch. Under extraordinary ones, they have impeachment, the clear remedy for a lawless president.
But Democrats, who hold the House of Representatives and have the power to initiate this particular process, are divided on how to move forward.
Following the release of the Mueller report, for example, the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, tossed cold water on the impeachment idea. “Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point,” he said. “Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment.” On the other side of the ledger, Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that “if proven, some of this would be impeachable, yes. The accusations in the report are impeachable. Obstruction of justice, if proven, would be impeachable.”
Among the most vocal Democratic voices for impeachment is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who wrote, “The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.”
Do Democrats charge forward on principle or do they leave the question to voters? Do they commit to hearings and investigations with an eye toward impeachment proceedings or do they downplay the issue of presidential accountability? To reject impeachment in the face of clear wrongdoing would all but prove the provision a constitutional dead letter. But embracing it has pitfalls of its own, like energizing Republican voters in defense of the president. There’s also no chance of conviction in the Senate — Republicans would almost certainly vote to acquit. Democrats could pursue impeachment, but it would be to make a symbolic point.
But symbolism matters. It shapes public perception and the contours of political conflict. Trump wouldn’t be president, for example, without his keen manipulation of race and identity.
Thanks to Robert Mueller, Democrats may have the facts of the president’s corrupt behavior, but they still need to make the case that his actions show criminal contempt for the Constitution. And that kind of high-stakes political argument is won by action, not passivity. Impeachment gives Democrats a real chance to seize the initiative.
Yes, more typical oversight may uncover the same evidence of presidential wrongdoing. Impeachment, however, makes that wrongdoing a question of fidelity to the Constitution. It captures our attention, sets the terms of debate and potentially puts Trump and his allies on the defensive — especially if an impeachment inquiry uncovers evidence of other wrongdoing. It also gives Democrats an opportunity to tell a larger story about the president’s behavior that goes beyond the Mueller report to include actions and rhetoric that show similar disregard for the duties of the office. The case for impeachment is about self-dealing and self-enrichment as well as obstruction of justice, open indifference to and contempt for the lives of American citizens struck by disaster, as well as passivity in the face of foreign attack.
Those fearful that an impeachment drive would mobilize his base should consider how Trump already keeps his supporters in a constant state of political mobilization through demagoguery and fearmongering. Instead of thinking about their opponents, Democrats should focus on their supporters, who voted in large numbers to give the party a House majority and keep the president in check. Even if Democrats won’t commit to an impeachment vote, an expressed willingness to consider an impeachment inquiry could help activate those voters and keep them energized through the next year and a half.
There’s also little reason to worry about a backlash that helps the president. Donald Trump is not Bill Clinton, who was unusually popular from 1997 onward, with a second-term job approval average of 61%. Even accounting for political polarization, Trump is unusually unpopular, weighed down by constant scandal and chaos. As late as January of this year, a majority of voters — 53%, according to a poll from Quinnipiac — said that Trump is “not fit to be president.”
And high-profile coverage of the president’s scandals has an impact. In a Reuters poll that measured immediate reactions to the Mueller report, Trump’s approval rating declined to 37%. The same survey shows a slight increase in support for impeachment (40% versus 39% in March) and a significant decrease in opposition to impeachment (42% say Trump should not be impeached versus 49% in March).
It’s possible that voters will change their minds in the face of an impeachment threat against the president. But given existing public opinion, it’s more likely that an impeachment investigation would deepen the sense that Trump is unfit for the office he holds.
The symbolic and the practical aside, there’s also the real question of our constitutional order. Either the president is above the law or he isn’t. Voters can’t determine this — elections aren’t actually the venue for adjudicating that kind of conflict. This is a job for our elected representatives in Congress. And if House Democrats believe Trump has violated the Constitution, they have an obligation to act on that belief, even if conviction in the Senate is impossible under current political circumstances. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, made this point Sunday in an interview on “Face the Nation.” “Even if we did not win, possibly, if there were not impeachment, I think history would smile upon us for standing up for the Constitution,” he said.
The potential impossibility of conviction itself is an important message for the public to take in. Many Americans may still believe that sufficient wrongdoing would bring both parties together to remove a lawless president. If that isn’t true — if presidential accountability of this sort is impossible under divided government — then Americans deserve to know. Then, at least, we can have a national discussion about what that means for the Constitution.
Caution on impeachment makes sense. It is a monumental step that would shape politics in unforeseen and potentially negative ways. But inaction, or even just ordinary action, has risks, too. Trump will continue try to shape the post-Mueller narrative to his advantage, condemning the investigation as a “witch hunt” from its origin to its conclusion. His allies will do the same. Even if they fail to persuade the public, they can muddy the waters and turn this constitutional conflict into another case of partisan bickering.
Democrats still have to defeat Trump at the ballot box, which means building a mass coalition against his politics. At worst, impeachment could crowd out the material case against Trump, centering the election on legal questions versus the impact of his presidency on people’s lives. But there’s another possibility: that impeachment helps Democrats make a truly comprehensive case against the president, uniting his corruption, his criminality and his contempt for ordinary Americans under a single narrative. Impeachment, pursued with vigor, then becomes part of the larger argument against him and the Republican Party that has bolstered his presidency, indifferent to its corrosive effect on all parts of American life.