Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Tuesday announcement regarding the House Democrats’ impeachment plans is less significant than the build-up had suggested. After months of pressure from Democratic colleagues, she declared that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. While her statement may be a milestone on the path to impeachment, it does not actually start the process on its own.
“Speaker Pelosi’s decree changes absolutely nothing,” Georgia Representative Doug Collins, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter. “As I have been telling [House Judiciary Committee] Chairman [Jerry] Nadler for weeks, merely claiming the House is conducting an impeachment inquiry doesn’t make it so. Until the full House votes to authorize an inquiry, nobody is conducting a formal inquiry.”
Collins is right. Nadler already began describing his hearings as “formal impeachment proceedings” last month. Pelosi said before her statement that the House would vote on a resolution on Wednesday, but she described it as a non-binding measure “making it clear Congress’ disapproval” of Trump’s handling of Ukraine, and not as one that would authorize impeachment proceedings. That distinction makes Tuesday’s announcement more theatrical than substantive at a time when boldness is necessary.
None of the arguments against acting boldly hold up to scrutiny. Some of Trump’s opponents, for example, still believe that impeachment might be a tactical mistake that would invigorate his supporters. Will there be enough votes in the Senate to convict him? The general assumption is that there currently aren’t—not just because Republicans control the chamber, but because the Constitution requires the votes of 67 senators to remove a president from office. Trump’s grip on the GOP base may keep most Republicans senators quiescent even if the House uncovers damning evidence.
“Here’s the dilemma that you have,” Bernie Sanders told reporters earlier on Tuesday, “Now I don’t know—I’ll tell you that my gut is that the average Republican in the Senate and the House is totally intimidated by President Trump. And at this particular point, I have my doubts, like you all. I have my doubts that any Republican, or very few, would vote against him.” He added that he feared an acquittal because “I know and you know what [Trump] will do: ‘I am vindicated! … I am vindicated!’ And I think that is a fact that has to be taken into consideration.”
Sanders raises a fair point, but he still cedes too much ground to the president. If Trump is defeated in the election next year, he will spend the rest of his life claiming that the fake news media turned voters against him and his wonderful policies. If Trump is convicted and removed from office, he will spend the rest of his life claiming he was the victim of a dishonest coup. All his successes spring from his inestimable genius; all his failures are the product of sabotage by jealous losers. He is one of the least contrite individuals in American public life. There is no situation where he would genuinely reckon with the causes of his downfall, however it may come about.
Others, including former FBI Director James Comey, argue that it’s the responsibility of the American people to oust Trump. “I don’t mean that Congress shouldn’t move ahead with the process of impeachment governed by our Constitution, if Congress thinks the provable facts are there,” he wrote in March. “I just hope it doesn’t. Because if Mr.Trump were removed from office by Congress, a significant portion of this country would see this as a coup, and it would drive those people farther from the common center of American life, more deeply fracturing our country.”
Comey makes the same error as Sanders by privileging Trump’s narrative. Impeachment is, by definition, not a coup. When Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs claim the deep state is trying to overthrow the government, they’re not exactly applying analytical rigor to current events in good faith. Forsaking impeachment because they and their viewers would call it a coup effectively gives them a heckler’s veto over Congress’ power to hold the executive branch accountable. It would also encourage presidents to make similar incendiary claims in the future to protect themselves from the consequences of their wrongdoing.
Comey’s point might be stronger if the president’s misdeeds weren’t directly related to the upcoming election. For all his bluster, Trump probably knows on some level that he is deeply unpopular and that his victory in 2016 was largely a fluke of the Electoral College. Rather than adjust his policies to convince the electorate that he deserves re-election, he’s allegedly invited a foreign power to kneecap his opponent. Long before that, Trump laid the groundwork to delegitimize the results before his surprise victory, and then falsely claimed he actually won the popular vote afterwards. His willingness to subvert American elections negates the idea that they’re the best option to remove him.
The American people will have a say in this, one way or the other. If the Senate fails to convict Trump, the American people might see it as vindication for the president. They might choose not to re-elect the Democratic lawmakers who embarked on such a futile crusade. Or they might examine the case made by the House and decide that it was their senators who failed them, not their representatives. Impeachment gives the House the power to make its case to two groups of people: the 100 members of the United States Senate, and the 320 million Americans who actually live in the United States. If one isn’t convinced, the other may yet be.
There are also tactical benefits in Congress’ wider struggle to reassert itself. As a cavalcade of Democrats signed on to impeachment this week, the White House appeared to relent on some—but not all—of their concerns. Trump ordered the release of a transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president on Thursday afternoon, and he reportedly spoke with Pelosi by phone to seek a way to quell the furor surrounding the whistleblower. That Trump is now treating Congress like a co-equal branch of government after months of stonewalling shows how the threat of impeachment is more important than ever, not less.
Most importantly, impeachment is more than an ordinary political process. It carries moral and ethical implications that define our democratic system. In 1787, James Madison argued that it was “indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief magistrate,” according to the records of the Constitutional Convention. “The limitation of the period of his service was not a sufficient security. He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
Pelosi, to her credit, seems to understand these stakes. “In the darkest days of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, ‘The times have found us,’” she said. “The times found them to fight for and establish our democracy. The times have found us today—not to place ourselves in the same category of greatness as our founders, but to place us in the urgency of protecting and defending our Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.” Trump’s actions demand that level of urgency, not more timidity from those charged with the Constitution’s defense.