With Thursday’s release of an almost comically damning complaint from an anonymous whistleblower alleging serious abuses of office by President Donald Trump, we seem to be barreling toward his impeachment. I would like to suggest that House Democrats slow down.
I start with the assumption that there will be no serious consequences for Trump as a result of the impeachment process. That assumption is informed by having been sentient and paying attention to the news during the last 20 years or so of American governance, and by reading a bit about the 20 before that. This is not a country that does serious consequences. I know we want to see Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs, but I also remember wanting very much to see the same thing happen to Karl Rove.
I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I do not expect Trump to be removed from office or to resign in a cloud of disgrace. I do not expect catharsis. Catharsis may be what some people are looking for from any sort of impeachment process, but I would invite them to read former Congressman Brad Miller’s remarkable history, in the latest issue of The American Prospect, of the last 40 years of congressional oversight of (Republican) presidential administrations. It is a story of shameless people getting away with it, over and over again, thanks in large part to a dubious but effective legal theory of presidential power developed by the current attorney general.
“Barr and others on the right have sought relentlessly for four decades to concentrate power in the president and strip power from Congress,” Miller writes, adding that “Barr is committed to presidential power with or without legal authority and with or without public support. And he will advance presidential power by any means necessary, which includes frivolous legal arguments and dilatory tactics forbidden by court rules and canons of legal ethics, and false testimony forbidden by criminal law.”
In lieu of justice, what I would like is answers. I would like the full story, a complete and detailed account of everyone’s involvement in everything. The whistleblower’s complaint is in large part an explanation of how dedicated the White House is to avoiding public disclosure of malfeasance. The fact that we are able to read it today is proof that impeachment is not a goal in and of itself, but a tool for ferreting out the truth. It should convince any skeptic that an impeachment inquiry should be wide-ranging and inclusive of all the president’s most serious scandals, from his apparent family history of tax fraud, to his ongoing abuse of office for self-enrichment, to his well-documented attempts at obstruction of justice.
The New York Times counts twelve active congressional investigations into White House misconduct. The speed with which the Ukraine scandal has unfolded, and the administration’s panicked acquiescence to disclosure demands once House Democrats made impeachment semi-official, should be a blueprint for getting to the bottom of all of those things.
Instead, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders reportedly want to expedite the impeachment process, with a narrow focus solely on one supposedly easily digestible subject. “I think focusing on this Ukrainian scandal singularly is important,” Congressman Ted Lieu told Politico. They want to just get it over with. They’re not even sure whether they want Rudy Giuliani, a key player in the attempted Ukraine shakedown, to testify, because he might melt down—and they think Giuliani melting down before Congress would be politically damaging to Democrats. That fear stems from the unsupported belief that “the circus-like atmosphere” of the congressional testimony of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was somehow damaging to the cause of impeachment. If they believe Lewandowski emerged from that circus unscathed, or somehow even more powerful, it is mainly because they failed to actually use their power to hold him in contempt as he practically begged them to.
Democrats routinely mistake the panicked bluster of Trump cronies for unshakable masculine confidence. Trump is not begging to be impeached, and Giuliani does not relish the opportunity to embarrass them: Neither one of them wants to be here at all.
A rush to a narrow impeachment strictly on the president’s attempt to coerce or bribe a foreign country into digging up dirt on a domestic political rival might sound strategically sounder than a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation into every other rotten thing the president and his cronies have done. A narrative that is easy to explain seems to be an essential part of a “successful” presidential impeachment (though the sample size is small). But the thing is, I want to know what is up with every other rotten thing the president and his cronies have done more than I want him to be impeached by the House.
If Democrats want a political argument for dragging this out, they can look to history: The Watergate hearings were a television show that lasted 250 hours. The articles of impeachment drafted against Nixon were not narrowly focused on the most blatant and well-supported abuses of Watergate, but included the secret bombing of Cambodia and tax evasion. They followed the investigation where it led, and the public eventually went along with them.
But gaming out how this will “play” with the electorate is beside the point. House Democrats should conceive of their intended audience not as swing voters or cable news pundits but posterity. They are responsible to history. Congressional majorities have tools, like subpoena power and security clearance, that journalists and historians lack. The point of investigating the administration is not to find the one thing they could nail him on, but to find all the things he ought to be nailed on.
Assuming there is no chance of the Republican Senate convicting Trump, and I still don’t think there is, an impeachment vote on one solitary scandal amounts to a vote of censure: a weightless illusion of accountability, and a chance for members of our political class to say that our system worked as intended when it really has not done so for some time now. Censure only humbles a person with respect for the system. Trump isn’t terrified of the prospect of an eternal asterisk in his Wikipedia entry labeled “impeached.” He’s terrified that people will actually find out every rotten thing he and his kids have been up to.