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The Border Wall Is Trump’s High Crime

There's no better reason for Democrats to impeach him.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There are, by the latest count, at least 130 House Democrats who support impeaching President Donald Trump, a number that has risen quietly but steadily in the wake of Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last month. While that cohort counts many senior members of House leadership among its members—including caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark and powerful committee heads like Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel and Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding firm in her opposition to moving forward with an inquiry.

In a conference call Friday, Pelosi reportedly told her caucus that although she “grinds her teeth” nightly “about what’s going on in the White House,” Democrats should be “unifying and not dividing,” and that—House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler’s suggestions that impeachment is already underway evidently notwithstanding—the party should wait for a stronger case for impeachment to emerge given that “the public isn’t there” on beginning proceedings.

Late Tuesday, The Washington Post handed Pelosi that stronger case. According to multiple officials reached by the Post’s Nick Miroff and Josh Dawsey, Trump, in his eagerness to finish a substantial portion of the border wall by next year’s Election Day, has not only urged the wanton seizure of private land and violation of environmental regulations, he has also assured his subordinates “that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing should they have to break laws to get the barriers built quickly.”

“When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead,” they wrote. “He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying ‘take the land,’ according to officials who attended the meetings.” Asked by the Post for comment, the White House claimed that Trump had been joking. True to form, Trump himself called the report “fake news” in a Wednesday tweet.

But the Post thoroughly documented a series of the White House’s eyebrow-raising demands and arrangements. Trump, for instance, has insisted that one of the contracts for the wall’s construction go to North Dakota firm Fisher Industries, evidently at the recommendation of North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer, a major recipient of contributions from Fisher’s CEO. Earlier this month, the Post reported that Cramer temporarily stalled the confirmation of a White House budget official to obtain sensitive information from the Army Corps of Engineers about Fisher’s competitors for the bid. After relenting, Cramer issued a statement claiming, remarkably, that Trump had “deputized” him to help manage the bidding process.

The Post has given us not a story about this administration, but the story about this administration—the part that contains the whole, the line running under all that troubles us about this era, rendered in bold: the president’s fomenting of racial and cultural hysteria and blows to the rule of law are aimed at enriching the already wealthy in ways already too familiar to us. The politicians of the Republican Party are not just complicit in this arrangement, they are its primary guarantors. The allegations make both our national situation and the sensible course of action plain.

As Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Research Director Robert Maguire tweeted early Wednesday, the abuse of the presidential pardon power the Post describes was explicitly discussed by the Framers of the Constitution as the document was being ratified.

During Virginia’s ratification convention, George Mason objected to creating the pardon power on the grounds that a president could conceivably, “pardon crimes which were advised by himself.” To reassure him and other skeptics, James Madison replied that there would be an obvious remedy for such a situation. “[I]f the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him,” he said, “the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty.” For Madison, the mere possibility that the president might pardon someone for activity suspiciously connected to himself was sufficient grounds for impeachment.

In any case, the technicalities of the president’s alleged promise are secondary. The wall is both an administrative boondoggle and a moral travesty, an idiotic project that will be effectual only as a symbol of the racism at the heart of the administration’s immigration agenda. An impeachment on the wall would be an opportunity to put that agenda on trial—a chance for Democrats to invite testimony against this president, before a raptly attentive national audience which would include some of the Americans and aspiring Americans the administration has hurt most directly.

Far from trivializing the Mueller report, this shift in focus would underscore the significance of its most troubling revelations. Those who asked after the report’s release what the offenses described could possibly have to do with the material problems facing this country should see now that the erosion of the rule of law can shape policy outcomes. In this case, the president’s lawlessness is facilitating a plan that would cleave apart and impose financial and environmental costs on Americans living in border communities, and legitimize anxieties that threaten immigrants across the country.

It is true that the Senate will never convict Trump. It also remains true that impeachment, beyond being a constitutional responsibility and a moral obligation, is a key political opportunity for the Democratic Party. Both the theatricality of the proceedings and the substantive information they might reveal could burden both the president and endangered Senate Republicans ahead of next year’s elections. At 35 percent according to the latest Monmouth poll, support for impeaching Trump remains substantially higher than public support for impeaching President Richard Nixon ahead of the first Watergate hearings in 1973. That support could rise if impeachment is finally endorsed by the upper rungs of House leadership.

Even voters wary of impeachment might be more forgiving of an inquiry focused on wrongdoing in the construction of the border wall and across Trump’s immigration regime than one premised on the Mueller investigation. On Wednesday, a Quinnipiac poll showed that 59 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of immigration broadly speaking; in late July they found a majority of Americans considered conditions in Trump’s detention centers “inhumane” and “a serious problem.” On the wall specifically, Politico and Morning Consult’s August tracking poll shows that a 54 percent majority of Americans believe the border wall should be a low priority or not constructed at all. The public, already primed against the president on the issue, would need no mental timeline of meetings, memos, and recusals, or working knowledge of the Emoluments clause to engage with the matter at hand.

Democratic activists, of course, are already ahead of the broader public. At the San Francisco Democratic Party’s “Heart of the Resistance” dinner last week, at which Pelosi received a Lifetime Achievement Award, protesters with the group CREDO Action interrupted her speech to demand impeachment now—not for the potential wrongdoing detailed in the Mueller report but the immigration policies and rhetoric from the White House that have fueled racist violence, including this month’s shooting in El Paso. “Speaker Pelosi, I am undocumented,” CREDO Campaign Manager Thaís Marques yelled from atop a table. “My community is being targeted by ICE! My people are dying! My people are being killed by white supremacists! Impeach Trump now!”

Like the president and his Republican supporters, the gunmen responsible for the El Paso shooting and last year’s Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh—respectively the deadliest attacks against Hispanic and Jewish Americans on record—argued that the country is being ‘invaded’ and imperiled by dangerous immigrants, a situation that for them, as it surely will for others, justified mass murder. In the latest case, furor over the link between what the president says and what the most dangerous people in the country have proven themselves willing to do lasted all of about a week; the usual lamentations that we might, as a country, become used to these outbreaks of mass violence and our climate of racial paranoia, faded, as proof that we already have.

Our handiest excuse—that the ceaseless stream of bad news and bullshit to which the Trump era has subjected us has left us helpless, confused, and overwhelmed, that too much has gone too wrong too fast to let ourselves sit still with any particular outrage or worry—is wearing thin. For as much as this president may have robbed us of sleep and self-respect, he has neither meaningfully diminished our agency nor our responsibility to, whenever we can, pin down a particularly important pattern of facts or a particularly significant story before it floats away into the ether and the noise.

The Post’s story is worth pinning down. These allegations are a place for us, as a country, to fix our attention even if the news presents us with a flashier bit of drama tomorrow—even if the president tries to buy Antarctica next week. Impeachment would ensure that we do. Given the state of inertia among key Democratic leaders, it might not happen for this or any other reason. That should continue to trouble us as much as everything else happening under this administration. An opposition party without the fortitude and daring to do the right thing here can hardly be relied upon to transform the American health care system, or save the planet, or accomplish any of the major promises breezily being offered by the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates on the stump. But the Democratic Party will never be moved if we don’t find ourselves sufficiently moved to stand fast and insist that this does, and must, matter.