After the release of the Mueller report, the question isn’t whether Trump deserves to be impeached. It’s whether Democrats will have the courage impeach him. Pelosi and other Democrats have urged caution, concerned that impeachment might hurt rather than help them in the next election. We believe their hesitation and fear is irresponsible and dangerous. This is no normal political situation: Trump is an autocrat who is quickly consolidating power. Democrats must be bold and aggressive, fighting for the survival of our democracy, for that is what is on the line and may be quickly lost if Trump is not countered immediately. As activists dedicated to defending and preserving our democracy, our job is to press them hard to take action and begin impeachment hearings. Now.
The release of the Mueller report, though heavily redacted, has brought the question of impeachment to the fore – and with it, an intense debate. The report builds out a picture we were already familiar with, adding new and damning detail: of a candidate and campaign who knew about and welcomed Russian interference designed to help them win and, later, of a president obstructing justice in order to hide those very facts. The report can, in fact, be seen as a “roadmap” for an impeachment inquiry to follow. The report, along with numerous other transgressions that lie outside the scope of Mueller’s work, has made it clear that Trump’s flagrant disregard for our laws and Constitution constitutes impeachable offenses – in the words of the Constitution, “…treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The question isn’t whether Trump deserves to be impeached. It’s whether Democrats will have the courage to pursue impeachment.
There is strong agreement among progressives about one thing: Democrats should aggressively investigate Trump’s and his administration’s wrongdoings. The disagreement is whether or not they should begin impeachment proceedings, which start with a set of investigations conducted through public hearings, and then lead to a statement of charges (or not, if no impeachable offenses are found). The statement of charges itself is the impeachment – something many people don’t understand. The charges are then brought before the House, which votes by a simple majority whether or not to bring the defendant to trial. If they do, the trial takes place in the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice. A two-thirds majority is required to convict, which results in removal from office.
There have been a number of reasons given for not beginning the process of impeachment. At the center of them is the concern that Republicans in the Senate will ignore any evidence and refuse to convict no matter what. Many of the fears have been raised by Speaker Nancy Pelosi: impeachment proceedings would be divisive for the country. They aren’t capable of garnering bipartisan support. The voters don’t support them. They could give Trump an issue to enrage his supporters. Behind them all is the fear that impeachment proceedings might endanger 2020 election victories for Democrats. People following this logic have advocated “letting the voters decide” as an alternative to the remedy stipulated in the Constitution.
We don’t believe this is a responsible course of action. Trump presents a danger we have never seen before in American politics, one that Article I of the Constitution was designed to protect us against. Trump acts as if he is a dictator, not a president in any of the ways that word is commonly understood. He began by trashing norms but he’s moved on now to disregarding and breaking both protocol and laws. He is consolidating power and remaking the government as a tool of his autocracy. Complicating this danger in ways the founders didn’t presage, the Republican Party is both actively and passively helping him to shred democracy. This is how autocrats destroy democracies and we’re seeing it happen here, now.
Investigating the president while refusing to impeach him is a clear statement of weakness. It’s as if Congress said that though Trump is doing bad things, that doesn’t mean he should be removed from office. This approach treats him as a political opponent, someone who should be voted out at the next opportunity and with whom we disagree but who is still functioning as a president and who can be trusted to run the country, albeit in ways we don’t like. The reality is that Trump is working quickly to dismantle the structures and processes of government in order to protect himself and to consolidate power in his own hands. Yet those who want to “let the voters decide” assume that the structures and processes for free elections will somehow be intact in 2020 as they always have been. This is perilously naïve.
This isn’t familiar political terrain. There is a real danger that our Democratic leaders, Pelosi in particular, are failing to grasp how desperate our situation actually is. We’re at war for the survival of our democracy and need to be fighting – right now – with everything we have. The procedural tools and the timeframes that applied in the past won’t work, precisely because they were designed for a functioning democratic process that Trump refuses to submit to. Witnesses are ordered not to appear before Congress, requests for documents are denied, subpoenas ignored. Trump threatens to use his corruptly-packed Supreme Court as a backstop, his get-out-of-jail-free card. Our leaders need to understand: they have to move quickly, because our institutions are failing by the week, and they must use whatever powers they can, however untraditional, to compel and stop Trump and his minions. They will only respond to power, nothing less.
Some argue that the House should pursue aggressive hearings now to form the basis for impeachment hearings to follow. That may be. But if so, they must happen right away, at a forced tempo, and it must be clear that they point towards impeachment, with those hearings following hard on their heels.
Concerns that impeachment hearings will be too “partisan” wildly misunderstand the situation we face, though it’s important to realize that they play to an old Democratic fear, one that the media too easily falls for. We must realize that the Republican Party is a willing participant in Trump’s autocratic attack. The party itself has become a threat to the foundations of democracy – ask one of the many former Republicans with a conscience. The correct term for those who oppose Trump and the Republican Party isn’t “partisan”. It’s “patriot”. And patriots must not be cowed.
Will impeachment distract from other messages or otherwise damage prospects for the next election? An undeterred Trump will certainly interfere with the next election far more than he did in 2016, when his cheating won him the presidency. While polls don’t show a majority of voters supporting impeachment now, this has it backwards: Democratic leaders are sending the message that impeachment is dangerous and then using the fears they themselves have spread to argue that impeachment doesn’t have enough support. It also ignores the vital role that public impeachment hearings play in building public support for removing someone from office. Opinion follows impeachment, it doesn’t lead. The fear of giving Trump an issue to rile up his base is the most ridiculous of all. He will enrage his base no matter what, using fact, fiction or fancy. Nothing Democrats can do will change that in the least. One fear that the Democrats haven’t mentioned, however, is worth pondering: why should voters work hard to elect representatives who look the other way when our country is in danger, who refuse to take action when the threat couldn’t possibly be clearer, indeed when they themselves spent two years saying, “Wait for Mueller’s report” but now refuse to follow that report’s roadmap to impeachment? Whose defining trait is hesitation and fear?
And if the Senate won’t convict? (They may not even hold a fair trial. Mitch McConnell has shown himself willing to bend and break the rules. And Trump, even if convicted, may refuse to step down.) The House will have done what the Constitution clearly directs it to do, without regard for political calculation, for the good of the nation and the survival of the Republic. The American public will have been able to see in the light of open and fair hearings the evidence of Trump’s criminality. And Republicans will have to take a public stand in favor of destroying their own country. Critically, Trump will have been treated as the criminal he appears to be, not normalized as an inept or eccentric variety of president.
We learned in 2016 that we must be responsible for our democracy ourselves, not trusting that job even to the leaders we admire and respect. The danger we face is that our leaders are doing too little, too late, not that they will be too aggressive. As activists, our job is to push them to begin impeachment hearings immediately. Even if they then hold other hearings first, they need to feel strong, continuous pressure from us to keep moving forward as fast as they can. Our country’s survival depends on it – on us.
– Tom Benthin, for the Advisory Council of Indivisible Sonoma County