There are very smart lawyers who believe Donald Trump entered the White House in violation of the Constitution, which forbids the president from receiving emoluments from foreign and local governments, and that he remains in violation of it today. But the list of reasons he could be impeached keeps growing.
When Trump disclosed code-word intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in the Oval Office on a lark two weeks ago, he endangered the life of an Israeli spy who had infiltrated the Islamic State.
Trump told those same Russians that firing FBI Director James Comey—whom he described as “a real nut job”—relieved “great pressure because of Russia.” Weeks earlier, he reportedly asked Comey to wind down his investigation of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, and when he decided to fire Comey, he told NBC’s Lester Holt, “I said to myself, I said, you know this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
Every individual item on this devastating bill of particulars eclipses the combined level of wrongdoing Republicans have sought to pin on Democratic leaders over the past decades, starting with President Bill Clinton’s sexual depravity, through the confusing miasma of Benghazi conspiracy theories under President Barack Obama, and ending with Hillary Clinton’s rule-breaking email protocols.
Each Trump scandal is well-documented, and a source of enduring national humiliation. It’s why some rank-and-file Democrats, like House representatives Maxine Waters and Al Green, are calling for his impeachment now. And yet, it is the position of nearly every leading Democrat that for both political and substantive reasons—the fear of “crying wolf,” the procedural obstacles, the lack of a completed investigation—liberals should not be calling for Trump’s impeachment.
“No one ought to, in my view, rush to embrace the most extraordinary remedy that involves the removal of the president from office,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the sober-minded senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He warned that Democrats should not let their actions “be perceived as an effort to nullify the election by other means.”
Most people conceive of political overreach as a mishmash of tactical measures and legislative objectives (like government shutdowns or huge tax cuts for the rich) that are dumb and morally wrong and counterproductive. But if the Obama years proved anything, it’s that the conventional wisdom of how “overreach” translates into political consequences is murky and unintuitive. Democrats accomplish nothing by pretending Trump hasn’t earned at least an impeachment inquiry, except to remind their core supporters that they remain uncomfortable with their own convictions.
What’s ultimately making Democrats uncomfortable with the word “impeachment” is not any doubt that Trump has earned it, but the shambling speed with which he did so. It is undeniable at this point that Trump has committed impeachment-worthy offenses, and that—should the political atmosphere in Washington ever allow it—he should be removed from office.
Trump’s central defense against his critics is that his most outlandish acts have all been legal. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he’s famously said, just as he claimed an “absolute right” to breach national security in his meeting with Russian emissaries, and to fire the FBI director. Each of these claims is narrowly true, but completely obfuscatory—and not just because impeachment is a political process, rather than a legal one.
Retaining ownership of his business empire doesn’t place Trump in violation of any laws per se, but he is in violation of the Constitution and of laws, if he’s used that business to accept bribes from governments. Trump has the unquestioned authority to fire the FBI director, but if his purpose in firing the FBI director is to cover up a crime, then he is nevertheless guilty of obstruction—much as my authority to own a kitchen knife does not allow me to use it as a murder weapon. (Ironically, none other than Comey himself once investigated Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, even though the pardon power is plenary, because plenary powers can still be used in corrupt and illegal ways.)
Unless the Trump-Russia nexus is much deeper and darker than it appears, the intelligence disclosure to Russia most likely doesn’t expose Trump to any legal jeopardy, but the legal scholars of the website Lawfare—which is not exactly a hotbed of resistance organizing—reasoned persuasively that the breach may have violated his oath of office.
“Congress has alleged oath violations—albeit violations tied to criminal allegations or breaches of statutory obligations—all three times it has passed or considered seriously articles of impeachment against presidents,” they wrote. “There’s thus no reason why Congress couldn’t consider a grotesque violation of the President’s oath as a standalone basis for impeachment—a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself.”
It is certainly awkward that Trump made himself vulnerable to impeachment so quickly after inauguration, but that is a testament to his overreach, not Democrats’.
The central risk of admitting this publicly isn’t overreach so much as over-promising. Republicans in Congress aren’t likely to impeach Trump, and even if Democrats reclaim control of both the House and Senate next year, removing him from office would require many Republicans to vote to convict him. But this is only a problem if Democrats are incapable of distinguishing between the abstract merits of impeaching Trump and the political feasibility of it. By impeaching Clinton, Republicans demonstrated that it’s possible for the political climate to allow for the impeachment of officials who do not deserve it. Our current circumstances are precisely backward. Trump deserves impeachment urgently, but politics will insulate him from it for the foreseeable future.
But that shouldn’t spook Democrats out of telling voters they understand how critical removing Trump from office is—and that they will fight as hard as they can to do so, even if they ultimately fall short. In many ways the 2016 Democratic primary underscored the importance of finding this very kind of middle ground between promising to deliver popular ends—like Medicare for all—and opposing those ends outright on political-feasibility grounds. The promise to fight is an easy promise to keep.
“I know that there are those who are talking about ‘Well, we’re gonna get ready for next election,’” Waters, the House Democrat, rightly said last week. “No. We can’t wait that long. We don’t need to wait that long. He will have destroyed this country by then. We cannot wake up every morning to another crisis, to another scandal.”
It is extremely unlikely that Trump will find remedies for the problems he’s created for himself by the end of next year—that he will liquidate his business, disclose his finances, nominate a consensus FBI director, and be fully exonerated by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Unless Trump does, he should not be president, and politicians aren’t serving the public well by pretending otherwise.