Boy howdy is this a can of worms
by Chris Thomas
The Mueller report is out. If you haven’t read it, that’s ok: neither has the President. There’s really more in the report than we can comfortably summarize here so, rather than attempt to do so, we’ll focus on one sentence.
Congress has Article I authority to define generally applicable criminal law and apply it to all persons-including the President. (p. 176)
This is an invitation to impeach. The substance of Mueller’s report boils down to a finding that the Trump campaign certainly tried to collude with Russia, may have actually colluded with Russia, and almost certainly attempted to cover up its involvement with Russia but that the DOJ’s official position that “a sitting President can not be indicted” makes actually charging the chief executive with a crime extremely difficult.
So Mueller lobbed the ball into Congress’ court. The report as much as urges Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.
While it is Congress’ responsibility to check the Presidency via the threat of impeachment, Democrats seem divided on this issue. Impeaching Mr. Trump is a major step and there are more than a few Democrats who view the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton as a bit of a cautionary tale. While Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate and both are needed to remove the President from office. Bill Clinton’s former press secretary argues against impeachment because he believes there’s a bigger prize in play: the complete destruction of the GOP.
While the Clinton impeachment looms large in any discussion of the topic, a lot has changed in the past twenty years. Democrats successfully cast the Clinton impeachment as a “partisan witch-hunt” (a phrase that Trump is intentionally using in an attempt to replicate their success) and, as a result, several Republicans broke ranks with their party and voted to acquit Clinton in his Senate trial. Democrats may hope to avoid the appearance of overt partisanship by approaching impeachment cautiously.
Caution is probably warranted. It’s worth noting that the Starr investigation into the Clinton administration began in 1994 — a year in which Republicans won a House majority with an 8-point popular vote majority. Just two years later, the Starr investigation (and Newt Gingrich’s vindictive brand of partisanship) had burned through all of that good will and then some. The Congressional popular vote swung 16 points and Democrats posted an 8-point victory in 1996.
Clinton would be impeached three years later and, though he remained popular despite the impeachment, report, and trial, Democrats lost the 2000 election, in part because running on the Clinton legacy was unadvisable. Viewed that way, impeachment and investigation was a mixed bag for the GOP. It cost them in the 1996 election but probably won them the 2000 one.
Of course, if the House votes to impeach that doesn’t remove the President from office. The Senate would have to convict the President in a trial overseen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It’s extremely unlikely that the Senate — which has only gotten more partisan since 1999 — would see enough Republican defectors to convict Trump of anything, even with an ironclad legal case and a mountain of evidence.
The risk is that Democrats would look feckless and weak should they try and fail to remove Trump from office for obstruction and campaign finance violations. Of course, they risk much the same things if they don’t.
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