The fact that House Democrats have finally subpoenaed Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s public testimony is important, welcome news.
The fact that it comes as a relief, even a surprise, reflects the party’s broader strategic and moral failure to anathematize the most obscene, corrosive president in modern history.
Because of who Trump is and how he comports himself Democrats knew that if they won the 2018 midterms they’d have to confront the impeachment question; they also knew that they’d be too afraid to impeach him. This is why they began laying the groundwork to shirk their impeachment obligation before the election. It’s why, once they reclaimed control of the House, they deferred the impeachment question to Mueller, as though Trump’s bad acts were limited exclusively to the issues Mueller had been authorized to investigate.
That made Mueller’s finding of impeachable conduct, which he referred right back to Congress, especially inconvenient. We’ve waited three months for this testimony, and have three more weeks ahead of us, because House Democrats have tried desperately to steer clear of all fights and inquiries that might leave them no choice but to begin impeachment proceedings. They have entered zero appearances in court in pursuit of testimony and documents from current and former administration officials, and we must infer at this point that they fear victory: If the administration provides smoking gun evidence of high crimes, they will have to impeach; if Trump defies a court order, they will have to impeach.
Letting Mueller get away without testifying, after all that’s happened, would have been too conspicuous and too humiliating. By the time he testifies, though, we will be on the cusp of a long congressional recess, after which we’ll be in election season, which will become an argument against impeachment unto itself.
The reed of hope for accountability has worn very thin. If Mueller’s testimony moves public opinion dramatically, or otherwise opens the floodgates of Democratic support for impeachment, it will happen, and if it happens, the inquiry may even encompass all of Trump’s abuses, not just the ones Mueller documented.
But those abuses have been apparent all along, and left unanswered because Democrats would rather let well enough alone, and hope voters do the hard work of rendering judgment.
It would be perfectly legitimate for Congress to impeach this or any president for the high crimes of shocking the moral conscience of the nation, and bringing the country to disrepute. If Trump were to advocate for the return of chattel slavery or join a satanic cult or take a daily nude stroll along The Ellipse with this chief of staff tethered to a leash, nobody would call it criminal, but the clamor for impeachment would increase.
Instead, Trump defended himself from a credible rape accusation by saying, in so many words, his victim isn’t attractive enough to rape, and Democratic senators shrugged it off. “I wouldn’t dismiss [the accusation],” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), “but let’s be honest, he’s going to deny it and little is going to come of it.”
“It’s not particular[ly] new news, so I don’t know,” added Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “I don’t think we need to take action.”
In lieu of using their powers, Democrats have staked everything on the hope that Trump’s repugnance will filter into public consciousness on its own, and manifest in what Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) described as “impeachment at the ballot box.”
1. Democrats ran a whole campaign in 2016 on faith that the public would roundly reject someone as repugnant as Trump, and he won.
2. “Impeachment at the ballot box” is not a thing.
Losing an election, even by a landslide, carries none of the stink that removal from office would, or even that impeachment without removal does. Bill Clinton was impeached but not removed, and it contributed to a widespread desire to change partisan control of the White House in 2000 and eventually to a mass cultural rethinking of Clinton’s qualities as a man and a president. George Herbert Walker Bush lost his re-election campaign to Clinton and our public institutions canonized him. News channels ran live footage of his casket traveling by train to its final resting place in College Station, TX.
If the same thing happens to Trump, the lesson every Republican in the country will learn is that they can commit crimes to win the presidency, vandalize the democracy, profit from it all, and the worst thing that will happen to them is that their reputations will quickly heal and they will enjoy opulent retirements. You will not, as Joe Biden likes to say, “see an epiphany occur among many of our Republican friends.” Things will only get worse. Republicans will have proof of concept that they can break all the rules and pay, at most, the same “price” that George H.W. Bush paid for being less charismatic than Bill Clinton.
The future of the country—whether we enjoy a semblance of democracy, whether we strive to be an ethical society—depends almost entirely on whether Democratic leaders can be bothered to flip the switch that will make the whole Congress vote, while the whole world watches, on whether an unapologetic rapist thief should get to lead the U.S. government. For now, they can’t be, and unless that changes, we’ll be stuck with their decision forever, no matter what Mueller says under oath.