The constitutional case for impeaching President Trump was best made two decades ago by one of his most servile enablers, Lindsey Graham, now the senior senator from South Carolina:
“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body [the Senate] determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role … because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
The political case for moving deliberately but fearlessly toward impeachment is even clearer: If timorous Democrats do not seize and define this moment, Trump surely will.
What just happened is that special counsel Robert Mueller delivered a searing indictment of a president who has no idea what “honor” and “integrity” even mean: a president who lies almost pathologically, who orders subordinates to lie, who has no respect for the rule of law, who welcomed Russian meddling in the 2016 election, who clumsily tried to orchestrate a cover-up, who tried his best to impede a lawful Justice Department investigation and failed only to the extent that aides ignored his outrageous and improper orders.
What Trump claims just happened is a “witch hunt.”
Anyone who thinks there is a chance that Trump will lick his wounds and move on has not been paying attention. Having escaped criminal charges — because he is a sitting president — Trump will go on the offensive. With the help of Attorney General William Barr, whose title really should be Minister of Spin, the president will push to investigate the investigators and sell the bogus counternarrative of an attempted “coup” by politically motivated elements of the “deep state.”
Here is the important thing: Trump will mount this attack no matter what Democrats do. And strictly as a matter of practical politics, the best defense against Trump has to be a powerful offense.
I fail to see the benefit for Democrats, heading into the 2020 election, of being seen as such fraidy-cats that they shirk their constitutional duty. Mueller’s portrait of this president and his administration is devastating. According to Lindsey Graham’s “honor and integrity” standard — which he laid out in January 1999, when he was one of the House prosecutors in Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate — beginning the process of impeaching Trump is not a close call.
It is also important for Democrats to keep their eyes on the prize. The election is the one guaranteed opportunity to throw Trump and his band of grifters out of the White House, and the big anti-Trump majority that was on display in last year’s midterm must be maintained and, one hopes, expanded.
But that task will largely fall to the eventual Democratic nominee, whoever that turns out to be. Presidential contenders should be free to position themselves however they see fit on the impeachment question. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has chosen to single herself out by leading the charge. Others may choose to demur and focus instead on the kitchen-table issues, such as health care, that polls show voters care about.
But most Democratic members of Congress (believe it or not) are not running for president. Their focus has to be on their constitutional duty; and nowhere in the Constitution does it say “never mind about presidential obstruction of justice or abuse of power if there’s an election next year.”
I have no intention of letting congressional Republicans off the hook. They have constitutional responsibilities as well, though it’s clear they will not fulfill them. Imagine, for a moment, if the tables were turned; if a GOP majority were running the House and a Democratic president did half of what Trump did. Do you think Republicans would hesitate for a New York minute? Articles of impeachment would have been drawn up long ago and stern-faced senators, including Graham, would already be sitting in judgment.
The conventional wisdom is that Republicans made a political error by impeaching Clinton. But they did win the presidency in 2000 and go on to dominate Congress for most of George W. Bush’s tenure. If impeachment was a mistake, it wasn’t a very costly one.
Does it “play into Trump’s hands” to speak of impeachment? I think it plays into the president’s hands to disappoint the Democratic base and come across as weak and frightened. Voters who saw the need to hold Trump accountable decided to give Democrats some power; and now expect them to use it.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.