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Impeachment

The Lessons of Impeachment and the End of Trump’s Impunity

It took the utter corruption of American foreign policy and a brazen assault on the public’s right to a free and fair election for Democratic leaders and other reluctant factions of the party to reconsider their opposition to impeaching President Trump.

Gratefully they had a breaking point, because the offenses that Trump now appears likely to be impeached for prove that, left unchecked, he’d destroy the foundations of self-government to maintain his grip on power. The damage Trump has already done is incalculable, and U.S. democracy remains in grave danger, but if these Democrats had no breaking point, they’d have effectively handed it over to him without a fight.

There is a general lesson here as Democrats enter a new phase of this confrontation, and for the Democrats who will wage future battles, about the consequences of the kind of timidity we’ve witnessed over the past several months: Political leaders who face no consequences for their corruption will be emboldened to commit more serious crimes, and the longer Democrats wait to confront Trump, the worse things will get.

Donald Trump entered the White House uniquely vulnerable to impeachment, the owner of an opaque web of private companies who obtained the office through criminal and corrupt means. Over the next two and a half years he piled increasingly brazen offenses on to that bill of particulars, emboldened at each juncture by Congresses—one Republican, one Democrat—that were determined for different reasons not to set an impeachment process in motion.

In the days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller produced a report showing Trump encouraged and expected to benefit from a foreign attack on the 2016 election, then abused his powers of office to obstruct the ensuing investigation, one of the few Democrats who recognized that taking impeachment off the table would create an unacceptable level of moral hazard was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). She warned, “If Donald Trump can do all that he tried to do to impede an investigation into his own wrongdoing and an attack by a foreign government,” and Congress takes no action, “then it gives license to the next president, and the next president, and the next president to do the same thing.”

The only thing her analysis missed is that Congress’s inaction also gave Donald Trump license to commit the same crimes all over again, this time with the awesome powers of the presidency at his fingertips.

And that is exactly what happened.

Members of the Trump campaign escaped indictment for cooperating with Russia’s attack on the election by the skins of their teeth. Trump himself escaped indictment for obstruction of justice only because the Justice Department prohibits its prosecutors from indicting sitting presidents. In lieu of an indictment, Mueller effectively referred Trump to Congress for impeachment, and in the face of hard evidence that he’d committed grave impeachable offenses, Congress took a pass. That combination of evasions sent Trump a clear signal that he could replay all the despicable and illegal things he did to obtain the presidency in the first place and nobody would rise to stop him.

A critical mass of Democrats and liberals ignored or scoffed at that warning. They’ve come around now that Trump has been caught—this time for extorting the president of Ukraine to sabotage Joe Biden—but it was never foreordained that Trump would be caught. Indeed, the scenario in which Trump kept this new conspiracy secret until next year is all too easy and horrifying to imagine.   

We have luckily escaped the worst, but Democrats still incurred real opportunity costs by ducking Mueller’s referral. It is probably no coincidence that Trump involved himself directly in the Ukraine extortion scheme the day after Mueller’s valedictory testimony to Congress, when it was clear Democratic leaders remained intractably opposed to impeachment. Had they treated the report with the seriousness it deserved, and unified their caucus behind impeachment, they might have discouraged Trump from inviting another foreign power to interfere in our election. Alternatively, he would have been undeterred, and the Ukraine scandal would have come to light amid a full-throttle impeachment inquiry.

And it’s not as though Trump’s recent conduct is so different from his past offenses that the case for impeachment has changed dramatically. To the contrary, the arguments now prevailing are the very same ones impeachment supporters have been screaming themselves hoarse about for months—since before Democrats won back the House: That impeachment is the only way for Congress to alert the public to the seriousness of the threat Trump poses, and deny his enablers veto power over accountability; that it’s the only way to force all Republicans to vote on whether they think Trump’s crimes are acceptable; that a president who faces no consequences for law breaking will eventually discover that an election is nothing but a patchwork of laws, and begin to break them.

What we know today that we didn’t before hasn’t changed much either. Trump’s efforts to silence and threaten the whistleblower who catalyzed all this are new and repulsive on their own terms, and the details within the whistleblowers concealed complaint may be worse than what is already public. But the plot to coerce Ukraine to involve itself in the 2020 election came to light before the summer. The vicissitudes of politics—a whistleblower who decided to take matters into his or her own hands; the existence of a corroborated complaint becoming public; Trump’s effort to cover it up—have made it easier for Democrats to step up now than the rollout of the Mueller report or the early reports of the Ukraine plot did. But Trump is only incrementally more deserving of impeachment now than he was two weeks ago. What’s changed is that the untenable nature of doing nothing has become impossible to deny. Having pulled their heads out of the sand, Democrats can now breathe again.

We should encourage and applaud the Democrats now joining the fight, but we should also reflect on what it means that they are poised to impeach Trump for engaging in the same kind of wrongdoing they were once content to let slide. Trump won’t be the last president to commit impeachable offenses, but he should be the last one given carte blanche to do so until the foundations of the republic begin to tremble.