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If Democrats Abandon Impeachment, They Aren’t Doing Their Jobs

Jay Willis
Trump believes the Mueller report exonerates him. If Congress refuses to hold the president accountable, he’ll be right.

The Mueller report, which the Justice Department released to the public on Thursday morning, is the jaw-dropping account of a corrupt president who tried his hardest to both do collusion-adjacent crimes and to hide evidence of those efforts from law enforcement officials. Although the special counsel's office elected not to indict Donald Trump—since their ability to do so is, at best, a legal gray area—their report sets out a clear road map for Congress, if it so chooses, to fulfill its constitutionally enshrined obligation to impeach him for high crimes and misdemeanors.

The ink on the report's redactions had scarcely dried, though, when the first round of high-profile House Democrats began nervously pooh-poohing the very idea of bringing Trump to justice in such a manner. "Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment," opined House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the number-two Democrat in Congress. (He walked this back later, asserting in a tepid statement that "all options ought to remain on the table" to ensure that "Congress and the American people have all the info they need to know the truth.") "Barring a bipartisan consensus," added former federal prosecutor and current House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, impeachment would be an exercise in futility. "You don’t bring a case if you don’t think you’re going to be successful just to try the case."

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said nothing new about the subject on Thursday. Last month, however, she told Reuters that "unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country." She added: "He's just not worth it." Some Democrats offered less ambiguous visions of what they think the House should do next; freshman representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, among others, promptly announced they would sign on to an impeachment resolution. The party's leadership, however, remains notably reluctant to breathe the i-word in public.

A brief civics recap : Impeachment is analogous to charging a president with crimes, and impeaching a president requires a simple majority vote of the House. If that vote is successful, the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides over a trial in the Senate; if two-thirds of senators vote to convict the president of said charges, the president is removed from office. The point at which Hoyer and Schiff are getting is that even if House Democrats were able to impeach Donald Trump—not a given, since that vote could be a tough one for nervous purple-district Democrats to take—Republicans still control the Senate. None of those 53 Trump dead-enders would dream of even criticizing the president, let alone casting a ballot to boot him from the White House. If you already know Mitch McConnell holds the ultimate trump card (sorry), their reasoning goes, why allow him the opportunity to play it and humiliate you on the national stage?

As majority leader, one of Hoyer's principal concerns is the preservation of that majority. And there is evidence that voters care less about the intricacies of Trump's purported legal jeopardy than they do, say, his fixation with repealing the Affordable Care Act, or his gracious extension of tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who don't need them. On the campaign trail, Democratic presidential hopefuls report receiving precious few questions about Russia, Mueller, and impeachment. And health care was the most important issue in the 2018 midterm elections, which Democrats won in convincing fashion. Given the party's recent track record of (modest) success and the de facto impossibility of convicting Trump between now and next November, the impulse to remain cautious, keep doing what works, and not risk the election on a doomed impeachment bet is understandable.

That said: Taking impeachment off the table altogether is a self-defeating and myopic approach. A team of veteran prosecutors just spent two years assembling a mountain of evidence that the president is a serial liar who will do (and has done) just about anything to evade criminal culpability. The most important reason the Department of Justice elected not to prosecute him for any of his misbehaviors, according to their report, is a longstanding policy that ties their hands by prohibiting the criminal prosecution of a sitting president.

But the special counsel's office made clear: " Congress has the authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice." If its conclusions are not an impeachment recommendation to lawmakers, they are, at the very least, a strongly worded referral. There is only one entity with the power to indict Donald Trump, and several of its most prominent members are already out here meekly declaring that it is just too challenging a task to undertake at this time.

This is a dereliction of duty masked as skittish risk-aversion. Public opinion is not static, and good politicians persuade voters to change their minds, oftentimes in a hurry. (Thanks to savvy messaging, for example, Medicare for All went from fringe idea to a table-stakes primary issue in just a few years.) Winning an election in the future and protecting the integrity of American democracy now are not mutually exclusive propositions. And although the former is a career aspiration for members of Congress, the latter is literally part of their jobs—something they swore to do when they took their oaths of office. Democratic candidates in 2018 spoke mostly about health care and the economy, yes, but many of them also pitched voters on the desperate need for a check on the Trump administration's rampant malfeasance.

The Mueller report is the most significant test yet of their commitment to that lofty pledge. If Democrats balk now, the constituents who voted for them are bound to be a bit less enthusiastic about offering support when re-election season rolls around. Their Republican opponents, meanwhile, will be emboldened to continue trampling democratic norms over the next 18 months, confident that they will face no consequences for doing so.

Uncritically foreclosing the possibility of impeachment sets a dangerous precedent. Call it the Hoyer-Schiff Standard: Unless one party controls both a majority of the House and a supermajority of the Senate, a president of the opposite party will never, never have to answer for their misconduct in office. This would render the institution of impeachment—which, again, is the only constitutionally approved method of holding a sitting president accountable—functionally toothless. If Democrats are worried that Trump will treat a hypothetical acquittal in the Senate as a triumphant victory over Deep State saboteurs, just imagine how he would treat the House's decision to respond to the long-awaited Mueller report with a collective shrug.

Even if impeachment does not end with the Senate declaring Trump to be a criminal, Democrats can still use the process to put him on trial, making a high-profile case to Americans that he is undeserving of four more years in office. But already, the president is insisting publicly that the report exonerates him. Unless Democrats decide to grow a backbone sometime soon, for all intents and purposes, he'll be right.