Democratic leaders are right to caution their members and candidates against talking up impeachment. There is the obvious political consideration that impeachment is disfavored, at least now, by many voters, especially those in red states where Democrats need to hang on to precious Senate seats. But there is something more important, both for the party fighting against the erosion of democratic norms and for the country: We cannot normalize impeachment.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, writes that “it is clear that if President (Donald) Trump participated in a conspiracy to defraud the United States during the campaign by colluding with the Russians, there is a historical basis for the Senate to remove him from office. It is even more clear that if he committed the offense of obstruction of justice while in office, that would provide a legal basis for removal.” Saying there is a basis for impeachment does not, however, mean it is the wise course of action.
Schiff argues that while the impeachment standard “cannot be easily or uniformly defined, I think in the present context it means the following: Was the president’s conduct so incompatible with the office he holds that Democratic and Republican members of Congress can make the case to their constituents that they were obligated to remove him?” The risk of moving on less-than-compelling grounds is a gigantic political divide and holds the potential for an endless cycle of recrimination and retaliation.
“This is a very high bar, and it should be. Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy, not to be entertained lightly, and in the case of a president, would mean putting the country through a deeply wrenching process. It is instead a remedy that must be considered soberly, mindful of the fact that removing a president from office should be the recourse for only the most serious transgressions.
“Should the facts warrant impeachment, that case will be made more difficult politically if part of the country feels that removing Mr. Trump is the result that some of their fellow Americans were wishing for all along.”
What does this mean in practice? Let’s start with situations in which I do not think the awesome power of impeachment should be exercised:
• If, putting aside obstruction, cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russians did not directly involve Trump and he did not have contemporaneous knowledge of such cooperation.
• If the only act of obstruction by Trump was the firing of FBI Director James Comey to disable the Russia probe.
• If the sole violation of law committed by Trump is failure to report the expenditure to pay off Stormy Daniels.
These actions are not acceptable and suggest sloppiness, dishonesty and contempt for the rule of law. They should preclude Trump’s re-election and warrant censure by Congress. However, they do not in and of themselves rise to the level that would forge consensus on impeachment. Impeachment would be a largely partisan affair.
What would be sufficient to convince a strong majority of Americans that impeachment was warranted?
• A pattern of conduct showing Trump’s ongoing efforts to disrupt or end the Russia investigation. This would include repeatedly misleading the American people, attempts to prevent witnesses from cooperating, pressure tactics to prevent legal action against Trump friends or family members, deliberately misleading investigators and threats directed at law enforcement.
• Maintenance of a slush fund to pay off multiple women during the campaign to prevent harm to Trump’s campaign, with the intent to hide such payments by, among other things, excluding expenditures from Federal Election Commission reports signed under penalty of perjury.
• Trump’s contemporaneous knowledge and approval of outreach to Russian operatives by aides and associates for the purpose of securing help (e.g., the timed release of hacked emails) to defeat Hillary Clinton.
Finally, even if there is ample evidence to prove one or more of these three scenarios, there still should be serious consideration of whether removal by the Senate is feasible. There is little to be gained by impeaching Trump if he then is not removed. Rightly or wrongly, Trump and his supporters would take the Senate’s failure to convict as vindication, suggesting the conduct they engaged in is acceptable.
Does this give immense power to Senate Republicans who will determine whether there is a supermajority for impeachment? Absolutely. And history, as well as the voters in 2020, 2022 and beyond, will judge them accordingly. Moreover, even if Congress did not pursue impeachment due to lack of consensus, every elected official would have an obligation to call for Trump’s resignation. The GOP would lose legitimacy as a national party if it permitted Trump to run for re-election.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective.