Where do you draw the line on what is an impeachable offense? I suggested on Wednesday that members of Congress be pressed to draw their lines in the sand, publicly and unequivocally.
Newspaper editorial boards and opinion columnists could also help clarify things by saying what they think constitutes treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.
To its credit, the Los Angeles Times editorial board drew just such a line in the sand on Friday.
The Times called Trump’s statement that a pardon for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is “not off the table” an alarming escalation in his efforts to undermine the rule of law.
“If Trump is rash enough to actually grant a pardon to Manafort or to others who have been caught up in Mueller’s dragnet,” the TImes wrote, “that should immediately trigger an impeachment investigation by the House of Representatives.”
That’s considerably more specific – and meaningful – than most major editorial boards have gotten so far, from what I’ve seen.
In a landmark editorial in April, the New York Times drew a red line — but didn’t explicitly call for impeachment if it were crossed.
The TImes editorial board advised lawmakers to be prepared for the possibility that Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller, “because if and when it comes to pass, they will suddenly find themselves on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in their hands.”
There were grave words about how “history will come calling ” and “it will be up to Congress to affirm the rule of law, the separation of powers and the American constitutional order.”
But the Times’s choice of euphemisms, rather than the word itself, was a head-scratcher. Did it mean the Times does not necessarily support impeachment in that circumstance? Or did the authors simply avoid the word because they were squeamish?
A few months later, the Times advised newly victorious House Democrats in November to “Avoid the ‘I’ word for now” [my italics]:
Impeachment is neither a sensible nor a winning issue to open with. Even many Americans who dislike Mr. Trump will, absent overwhelming evidence of impeachable offenses, balk at efforts to remove a sitting president.
The “for now” word choice might suggest that the Times thinks impeachment is an inevitability. But the conditions the Times set were vague, and came with a big loophole:
Democrats would do well to wait and see if the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, turns up high crimes and misdemeanors before deciding whether to pursue the painful and divisive path of impeachment. If so, they’ll want to bring along at least some of their Republican colleagues.
The Washington Post editorial board, responding to rumors in June 2017 that Trump wanted to fire Mueller, first went out of its way to register its distaste for the idea of impeachment, then allowed that there might be a case for it:
We have viewed much of the talk to date about impeachment as overheated. But firing Mr. Mueller would, more than anything else the president has done in office, firm up a case that Mr. Trump is obstructing justice.
In October 2017, the Post editorial board argued that there was no need for Congress to pass legislation to protect the special counsel, as:
If Congress feels that it would be unacceptable for the president to dismiss the special counsel investigating him, it can respond to such an act with a mechanism already available: impeachment.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Censure is not impeachment. Whether that’s appropriate will likely depend on the outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Opinion columnists are of course considerably more varied and excitable than editorial boards.
The latest offering from them about impeachment comes from Bloomberg opinion columnist Jonathan Bernstein, who argues that Trump’s disdain for the rule of law makes him worse than former President Richard Nixon:
Nixon at least pretended that the law applied to him; he just lied about following it. Trump expresses contempt for the rule of law every day — some days, he shouts it from the mountaintops. That attitude, more than any of the specifics of the Russia probe or the obstruction investigation, is why this is such a malignant presidency. And why, unfortunately, the House may eventually have no choice but to act.”
Bernstein argues that Trump has done enough to justify impeachment, but not enough to demand it. Yet.
“Trump seems determined to force the issue with his flat-out contempt for the rule of law,” Bernstein writes, citing:
- His attacks on Mueller.
- His collaboration with Manafort behind Mueller’s back.
- His public hinting about a pardon.
- His installation of a loyalist as attorney general, without Senate confirmation.
- His defiance of constitutional prohibitions on emoluments.
- His frequent suggestion that his political opponents should be imprisoned.
On MSNBC’s “All In” with Chris Hayes, Georgetown University constitutional law professor Neal Katyal said Thursday night that the latest revelations may leave Democrats no choice.
“Even if the Democrats don’t want to do it – impeachment — they almost are going to have to look at it very, very seriously now,” he said.
Katyal said the fact that Russian officials knew Trump was lying when he denied contacts with them gave them leverage over him. “We as Americans are only learning about it today, but the Russians have known about it for two years,” Katyal said. “This is a matter about the national security of the United States.”
Katyal is right, lawyer and Harper’s Magazine contributor Scott Horton wrote on Facebook:
The question of impeachment process is not about what is politically convenient, but what is constitutionally required. The developments of the last 72 hours suggest that the House will need to take up the issue of impeachment and convene hearings to review the possible charges and facts … even if a conviction in the senate seems politically blocked. I am not sure where this process leads, but I no longer see its initiation as avoidable.
But it’s not up to opinion columnists
It’s up to this man: incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, who the New York Times profiles today.
Reflecting the current position of other House leaders, Nadler appears utterly conflicted about how to proceed. On the one hand, the Times reports:
Mr. Nadler… insists that some of Mr. Trump’s supporters would have to be with him before he moved forward with impeachment.
On the other:
Mr. Nadler already appears to have all but given up on the idea that he would be able to convince Republicans of any presidential wrongdoing.
And while Nadler “has said explicitly that he will wait for Mr. Mueller to finish his work before seriously considering a remedy like impeachment,” the Times notes that he has also “begun poring over texts on the subject.” So who knows?
Federal workers: Do not send this column to your coworkers
An advisory from the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act, notified federal employees yesterday that advocating for or against impeachment – or using variations of the word “resist” in that context – is now considered illegal “political activity.”
As Charlie Savage reports in the New York Times, it is “a pronouncement that legal specialists say breaks new ground, and that some criticized as going too far.