Long before they won back control of the House last year, impeachment-wary Democrats had settled on a mantra for evading questions about whether President Trump deserved to be impeached: “Let’s wait for the Mueller report.”
This was an unsatisfying dodge for many reasons. A great deal of Trump’s impeachable conduct has had nothing to do with the Russia investigation. Much of it has had nothing to do with the criminal law at all, and even if that is the standard these Democrats meant to invoke, Trump has been an unindicted coconspirator in a completely unrelated criminal conspiracy for many months.
But if the point was to buy time, and nothing else, you’d think Democrats would have readied themselves with a party line position about what should come next. The basic shape of the Mueller report has been clear to close observers for weeks. Trump’s corrupt relationship with Russia and his efforts to spoil the investigation have played out on live television. In a clumsy effort to conceal the report, the Justice Department gave Democrats almost a month between the end of the investigation and its publication, and with all that time to put their caucus on message…they just didn’t.
Into that void shambled House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who declared that despite the enormous malfeasance Robert Mueller documented so meticulously, and even teed up for Congress to act upon, “going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile.”
Hoyer’s comments reportedly stunned certain Democrats. One aide called it “off message,” while other members said that he and the House leadership had provided the caucus no talking points about Mueller’s findings—that there was no message for Hoyer to stray from.
Hoyer eventually walked it back, but not far enough. “Congress must have the full report and all underlying evidence in order to determine what actions may be necessary to ensure that the Congress and the American people have all the info they need to know the truth and all options ought to remain on the table to achieve that objective,” he said.
He may as well have tweeted, “Must. Buy. More. Time.”
At some point soon, Democratic leaders will have to reckon with the fact that the founders created the impeachment power for precisely this moment. That impeachment is their basic obligation. On a practical level, there’s simply too much time between now and the election for them to avoid the confrontation altogether with stalling tactics. But more importantly if they try to run out the clock, or settle on the claim that impeachment just isn’t worth it, they will do incalculable damage to themselves and the country.
This is not principally an argument about what constitutes sound political strategy—about what approach will galvanize whose base more. My biases tell me that impeaching Trump would inspire Democratic voters, and bog Republicans down with endless recitations of their party’s hideous corruption. My biases tells me that running scared from the impeachment question would deflate many Democratic activists, by signaling to them that the party doesn’t really consider Trump’s presidency to be an emergency after all, and will refuse to hold his regime accountable for its crimes even if the next election goes well. But that could be wrong.
The real importance of impeachment at this point is to shelter the country from what Trump and his allies will do if Democrats remain aimless. Democrats aren’t really buying time for themselves. They are buying time for Trump to get the GOP back on its horribly dishonest but unified message that he has been exonerated and that the investigation itself was criminal. If Democrats don’t pull the country into a debate about impeachment, we won’t get a draw. We will get a debate about investigating the investigators and jailing Trump’s critics. Cowardice creates a void that Trump will fill with autocratic ambition, and his crooked attorney general will be there to help.
William Barr has already threatened the FBI officials who launched the Russia investigation with recriminations. Two of Trump’s most clownish but ubiquitous propagandists told the White House counsel in a semi-public forum that they should counteract the Mueller report by charging Hillary Clinton with a crime.
The combination of impunity from prosecution, a faithless attorney general, and a Congress that says impeachment isn’t worth it is a bit like hanging a flashing sign outside Trump’s bedroom window that screams “YOU ARE ABOVE THE LAW.” It tells him that no one with any power will discourage him from colluding with Russia (or the Saudis or his new best friend Kim Jong Un) to win the election just as he did in 2016. The “politically cautious” move is actually an invitation to him—to work in tandem with the next authoritarian regime that’s willing to criminally sabotage the Democrats’ eventual nominee.
House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, who among Democrats has the best handle on the details of the Russia scandal, nevertheless echoed Hoyer Thursday saying he learned as a prosecutor, “you don’t bring a case if you don’t think you’re going to be successful just to try the case,” and thus “barring a bipartisan consensus” impeachment should be off the table. This argument has been an inducement to Republican lawlessness since Schiff first offered it last year, and it is fatally misguided. It presupposes that if press releases and headline writers don’t move public opinion on their own, then all options are exhausted. That if Republicans refuse to support the impeachment of a president who needs to be impeached, Democrats are out of options and must throw up their hands.
In reality, the job of persuading the public that the president needs to be impeached falls to the leaders of the House of Representatives themselves. Unlike prosecutors, they don’t infringe on anyone’s liberties by trying a case they think they might lose. Unlike prosecutors, their decision to decline warranted charges can create lasting precedents and perverse incentives. Unlike prosecutors, their trials aren’t zero-sum affairs, because trying a case well and losing can have salutary benefits for their party and the country. Going down swinging can be good politics, and set important precedents. Unlike prosecutors they can’t select their jurors, but also unlike prosecutors, they are not discouraged from trying the case in public. To the contrary, it is their obligation. And if the Mueller report makes one thing clear it’s that if Democrats fail to meet that obligation, Trump won’t be chastened—to the contrary, he will be more emboldened in his abuses of power, and the country will be in even greater danger.