With the House passing to Democratic control and special counsel Robert Mueller getting closer to going public with the results of his investigation, the eventual impeachment of Donald Trump is a distinct possibility.
To political journalists at most major news organizations, however, impeachment is barely worth discussing — and even then, mostly in the context of whether it’s politically feasible, or politically desirable, how it polls, and who the winners and losers would be.
But right now – before Mueller tells us what he’s found out – the media should be abuzz with attempts to establish some baselines about what reasonably constitutes an impeachable offense.
Yes, of course Gerald Ford was technically correct when he said that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
But in the abstract, at least, there ought to be some consensus – or at least some coherent schools of thought – about what can reasonably be said to constitute treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
Rather than asking Democratic members of Congress whether they think impeachment is politically savvy, we should be asking them whether they agree with, say, Watergate veteran Elizabeth Holtzman‘s conclusion that by continuing to operate his businesses, Trump has repeatedly violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause “and possibly the ban on bribery as well.” Or whether they agree, at least in principle, with any of the various draft articles of impeachment here, here, here, or here. (Got any others? Email them to me.)
To the extent that members acknowledge that something Trump has done – like firing the FBI director, or taking children from their mothers at the border, or using active-duty troops to score political points — amounts to an impeachable offense, then the next, obvious question is why are they not impeaching him now, not: would they consider it in the future?
Then again, presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has essentially declared that impeachment is up to the Republicans. “If the evidence from Mueller is compelling, it should be compelling for Republicans as well, and that may be a moment of truth. But that’s not where we are,” she said in an interview with the New York Times Magazine.
So rather than asking Republican members of Congress about impeaching Trump, we should be getting them to say what they themselves consider impeachable offenses – arguably locking them in, when and if Mueller can prove they were committed.
These are straightforward yes-or-no questions:
- If a president is found to have solicited or knowingly accepted help from a foreign government to influence an American election, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
- If a president fires a special prosecutor investigating him, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
- If a president directly orders the Justice Department to prosecute his political rivals, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
- If a president pardons himself, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
- If a president promises pardons to potential witnesses against him, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
And, bonus essay question:
- What level of presidential lying to you consider an impeachable offense?
Keep in mind: Even Trump’s own White House lawyers felt that Trump would likely be impeached if he ordered the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey.
This is not just liberal crazy-talk.
Former Obama DOJ official Harry Litman recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Mueller is most likely to file charges involving criminal conspiracies. “Charges, in other words, that not even the most ardent Trump die-hard could trivialize,” he wrote.
But couldn’t they? It would be harder, certainly, if they were already on the record saying yes, that would be too much, even for us.
Ideally, every member of Congress would be forced to go on the record now, clearly stating what they consider an impeachable offense. This would have all sorts of advantages.
It would help establish, for better or for worse, what Congress considers a punishable abuse of power.
And if you look at the reality, rather than the politics, it’s actually hard to argue that Trump hasn’t already conducted any number of impeachable offenses.
So for most Democrats, it would establish a threshold beyond which there would be no excuse not to proceed with impeachment proceedings — other than cravenness or pure politics. It might even force them to acknowledge that the threshold, by any historically normal reckoning, has already been reached and exceeded.
And Republicans would have to choose between publicly sanctioning obviously impeachable conduct – like helping a foreign government influence an American election – and saying that in this particular case, the rules don’t apply.
So, regardless of whether you think impeachment is politically feasible, or politically desirable, how it polls, and who the winners and losers would be, discussing impeachment – in fact, constantly discussing impeachment, and using impeachable offenses as a metric in measuring Trump’s day-to-day conduct – is a powerful way to avoid normalizing this very abnormal presidency.