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Don’t Absolve Trump Of his Impeachable Offenses

Republicans wouldn’t be kicking off midterm election season by scaring their voters about the specter of Donald Trump’s impeachment if they weren’t fully aware of how corrupt and unfit (and thus how disliked) the president is.

In his piece about about Republicans using a largely imaginary impeachment threat as an election-season rallying cry, the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin acknowledges that the strategy is a symptom of desperation. “[T]he mere fact that Republicans are talking by early spring about running on an impeachment threat,” he writes, “reveals the depth of their challenge going into this fall’s election.“

It also stands to reason that Republicans wouldn’t bother taking this tack if they knew Democrats’ views on the issue weren’t completely muddled. If Trump didn’t deserve to be impeached, Democrats would have an easy time brushing aside questions about impeachment as Republican fabrications. The fact that the impeachment issue has the power to divide Democrats stems from a widespread understanding that Trump embodies the reasons the Framers devised the impeachment power in the first place, but that Democrats, for political reasons, lack the courage of their convictions.

The second goal of all this loose talk is to make wrong-footed Democrats look ridiculous—unable to admit that Trump should be impeached, but unable to explain why not—and thus trip them into infighting.

Fair’s fair in politics, but an avoidable side effect of all this will be squeamish Democrats racing to pretend the impeachment question isn’t ripe yet.

“I’ve been urging members to refrain from discussing impeachment,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told Martin. “I think we should let these investigations conclude and see what evidence is found.”

It would be fair to argue Trump isn’t (yet) a worthy target for impeachment if the only offenses he could plausibly be accused of were the ones currently under federal investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The problem is that the case against Trump is more than just demonstrable–it’s been right out in the open since the day he became president:

Trump uses his businesses as conduits for bribes and is susceptible to policy extortion by creditors, hush money recipients, and others. If he weren’t such a greedy crook, he could have eliminated these fundamental problems. He could have sold off his investments, placed his fortune in a blind trust, and disclosed conduct he’d engaged in that would have otherwise made him vulnerable to blackmail.

Instead, he remains the owner, face, and (effectively) operator of the Trump Organization. He skims off the top of the Treasury and refuses to disclose his tax returns. He doesn’t and can‘t run the government in the public interest, and should thus, on the merits, be removed from office.

This has nothing to do with obstruction of justice and is only partially related to the “collusion” question. (If the Russian government can prove that Trump knew of or participated in the conspiracy to subvert the 2016 election, it has immense leverage over him.) But even in absence of a Russia scandal, Trump’s business empire (to say nothing of his autocratic tendencies and incompetent management) would be a burning crisis. Democrats wouldn’t be “normalizing” the abuse of the impeachment power by deploying it against Trump. Their refusal to acknowledge Trump’s basic incompatibility with high office is instead normalizing the idea that corrupt businessmen can use the presidency to enrich themselves at the expense of the public.

The additional question of whether Democrats should “commit” to impeachment is a red herring. It suggests Democrats must either forswear impeachment altogether or make it a leading initiative on their campaign platforms. But Democrats can’t credibly promise to remove Trump from office, and the value of impeachment without removal is questionable. Impeachment is a campaign issue only insofar as myriad political abstractions are campaign issues, which speak to candidates’ values and approaches to governing.

The fact that impeachment may not be practicable, though, has no bearing on the normative question of whether Trump deserves to be impeached, or on whether Democrats and liberals should try to persuade people that he does. The answer to those questions is obvious.

It is completely reasonable for Democrats to weigh the political costs of acknowledging or dwelling on Trump’s obvious unfitness for office. But it’s also a mistake in both the near and long term to pretend the obvious doesn’t exist. It’s a dangerous thing—for people and for the institutions that make the country governable—that Trump is president. The fact that he won’t divest himself from his businesses, won’t stop mingling his public duties and his financial interests, and also won’t say whom he owes money to, or who could otherwise ruin him financially, is an affront to all citizens, and a national security emergency. Democrats will have the power to reduce these harms, and pressure the president to get his interests and the public interest aligned, if they control at least one chamber of Congress. Whether that leads to impeachment or not, it’s a better argument than the Republican appeal that Republicans must keep Congress so that Trump can continue to be historically corrupt and conflicted without oversight.

Those who are scared that any impeachment buzz in the air will hurt Democrats politically ought to say so, but without absolving Trump of all the impeachable depravities he’s engaged in before our eyes.