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The Right Way to Impeach Trump

There's no good argument for Nancy Pelosi's narrow approach focusing on Ukraine. There are five other key scandals that demand public hearings.

Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images

Let’s start with the good. The Democratic Party’s response to a whistleblower’s report that President Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to interfere in next year’s presidential election has been swift and strong. In endorsing an impeachment inquiry, Democratic leaders have united the party behind a true confrontation with the president of the kind progressives have longed for since the beginning of his administration—those earnest and freshly indignant days before #Resistance was a bitter joke at the party’s expense. Over the past several days, progressives, safe seat Democrats, and restless members of the House Judiciary Committee have been joined in their support for impeachment by moderates and Democrats from swing districts who have either bet that the party can bring a compelling exposition of Trump’s wrongdoing to the public or decided that the party’s waffling on the matter had become a political liability. 

The path forward Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially set for House Democrats after endorsing impeachment was sound. According to a Politico report Tuesday, committee leaders heading the House’s already ongoing investigations were asked to “compile their arguments for impeachment and send them to the House Judiciary Committee,” which would have then been tasked with preparing a “package” of potential grounds for impeachment. Here, Pelosi’s instinct for caution served the party and the country well—as impatient progressives began urging the party to move speedily towards the drafting of articles of impeachment and a vote, Pelosi put the House on a course towards hearings that would help build the case against the president, on multiple fronts, over the next several months. 

And now for the bad. House Democratic leaders have now decided on a speedy impeachment process after all—one focused primarily or even exclusively on Trump and Ukraine. “Democratic leaders see the evidence from the Zelenskiy call as damning enough to impeach—and easy enough for the public to digest—in isolation, without drawing in allegations of obstruction of justice, self-dealing and other wrongdoing,” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Rachael Bade, and Robert Costa wrote Wednesday. 

“Leaders began discussing a swift timeline to, in the words of one member, ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ and possibly vote on articles of impeachment before the end of the year.” Pelosi confirmed this at a press conference Thursday morning. “Our focus now is on this allegation,” she told reporters. “We’re seeing the evidence in front of us.” Last night, the Post additionally reported that House Democrats, at the behest of antsy freshmen, plan to review that evidence mostly in “closed-door interviews” with, in the words of one senior Democratic aide “very few hearings, if any.” 

Things have moved quickly enough that it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves, again, the basic questions at hand here: Why should Trump be impeached and what should we hope an impeachment might accomplish? Four rationales come readily to mind. 

The most obvious and most easily dismissed one is the notion that an impeachment might remove Trump from office, bringing an end to a destructive presidency and restoring normalcy to Washington. This will not happen. Democrats would need two-thirds of the Senate to convict and remove Trump, and the vast majority of Senate Republicans are likely to vote against them no matter what grounds for impeachment are brought to a trial—assuming that Mitch McConnell doesn’t simply, despite his assurances now, prevent a Senate trial from taking place. Moreover, it’s not at all obvious that replacing Trump with his staunchly loyal and staunchly right-wing vice president would leave the country better off. 

The second and most popular argument for Trump’s impeachment is that holding a president accountable for wrongdoing is a constitutional obligation for lawmakers, and that failing to do so with Trump would erode impeachment’s power as a vital check on the executive. This case has been made repeatedly by historians, constitutional scholars, and pundits over the past two years and was the driving argument behind The Atlantic’s cover essay on impeachment by Yoni Applebaum in March:

The electorate passes judgment on its presidents and their shortcomings every four years. But the Framers were concerned that a president could abuse his authority in ways that would undermine the democratic process and that could not wait to be addressed. So they created a mechanism for considering whether a president is subverting the rule of law or pursuing his own self-interest at the expense of the general welfare—in short, whether his continued tenure in office poses a threat to the republic. This mechanism is impeachment [...]

Impeachment [...]  is a vital protection against the dangers a president like Trump poses. And, crucially, many of its benefits—to the political health of the country, to the stability of the constitutional system—accrue irrespective of its ultimate result.

For Democrats, there’s also a straightforwardly political case for impeachment—the information an impeachment process would reveal could damage President Trump at the polls next year by mobilizing Democrats and Trump opponents, swaying whatever small share of voters might be persuaded to change their minds about Trump, or depressing Trump supporters. Additionally, vulnerable House and Senate Republicans would be forced to take difficult and potentially costly public votes on the president’s actions.

Finally, there’s a purely moral case for impeachment. The American people are entitled to the truth about all this administration has done, and there should be a formal accounting of Trump’s wrongdoing for the public and for posterity. Impeachment is the only opportunity our political system offers Democrats to accomplish this outside of an electoral process structurally tilted in Trump’s favor. 

An impeachment focused primarily or entirely on the Ukraine allegations makes little sense no matter which argument one prefers. It’s no more likely to lead to Trump’s removal from office than any other approach. In its omission of the potential wrongdoing Democrats have followed and sought information about across twelve Congressional investigations, it would fail to fulfill impeachment’s function as a strong check on the presidency—if not impeaching Trump at all threatened to establish a precedent that politics might allow a president to get away with anything without a formal challenge, impeaching Trump on only narrow grounds establishes one that a president may get away with a great many things as long as their crimes and offenses are numerous. 

Politically, a Ukraine-focused impeachment carries many of the same risks as the focus on the now apparently sidelined Mueller report did—while the offenses committed in both cases are clear and easily understood, they’re also accompanied by dry details with no real bearing on the immediate, material lives of the voting public or anyone the voting public might find particularly sympathetic. Lastly a Ukraine-focused impeachment would not be the full moral rebuke this president deserves. History will not look much more kindly at us for doing the bare minimum than it would have if we had done nothing. 

Why then, given all this, are we evidently headed for a Ukraine-focused impeachment? For one, Democratic leaders have plainly grown tired of being bludgeoned by progressives and impeachment advocates. The Ukraine allegations offered an opportunity to seize on a new offense that could be framed as a last straw uniquely damning enough to change the party’s stance, instead of continuing a slow slide to  impeachment driven by a gradual erosion of leadership’s credibility on the issue. Not pursuing impeachment now would have made it inescapably clear to all that the party’s reluctance to impeach was political rather than a matter of the substance of Trump’s wrongdoing. 

The Ukraine allegations, moreover, don’t seem to require all that much more in the way of investigation or deliberation—the offense is plain in the transcript of Trump’s call. This means that Democrats who never wanted impeachment to happen to begin with, and who are still wary that it might cost the party, can get the process over with quickly and move on while telling progressives that they “did” impeachment. 

Democrats are also focusing on Ukraine for the same reasons they initially focused on the Mueller report. Trump’s offense in this case is, again, similarly clear and also allows Democrats to frame impeachment as a non-partisan matter of “national security” and “election integrity”—words strewn throughout the statements issued this week that Democrats believe carry a totemistic power to convince even those who might otherwise condone the president’s behavior that he’s in the wrong. This is as naive an assumption as it was through the duration of the Mueller investigation, which saw Republicans in Congress and conservative media doing yeoman’s work in their attempts to frame a probe headed by a Republican ex-FBI chief as a wild partisan conspiracy. The same voices are now insisting that Ukraine is only the latest development in the very same partisan “witch hunt.” 

All in all, these are poor reasons to have the Ukraine material, which is genuinely troubling, supplant offenses that could make up a broader case for impeachment. While more articles against Trump aren’t more likely to lead to his removal than a narrower case, a broad impeachment would more completely fulfill Congress’s constitutional obligation to hold the president accountable. While the voting public might take or leave an argument for impeachment based specifically on the Ukraine allegations, a broader impeachment would present voters with a more compelling picture of the president’s wrongdoing. Not only would a case so derived be harder to dismiss or ignore, the presentation of such a case against Trump might trouble different voters in different ways—and vulnerable Republicans would be forced to respond to multiple offenses. 

A broad impeachment could also offer Democrats the opportunity to divide their political labor—having already put Trump’s misdeeds before the public thoroughly in the House, the Democratic nominee can be more forward looking and policy-oriented in their messaging ahead of the presidential election. Finally, a broad impeachment would, whatever may come politically, be a more complete moral rebuke of this administration, after which we might finally be able to say that Democrats in Congress made a real, comprehensive effort to stand against this president. 

The Democratic Party should hold hearings and draw up articles of impeachment on the Ukraine scandal. They should also consider doing the same on the following:

  • Obstruction of justice: The abandonment of the Mueller report is all but a formal concession to progressives and voices on the left long argued a focus on it would never be as robust and compelling as other potential grounds for impeachment. The investigation did, nevertheless, yield clear-cut instances of obstruction of justice that Democrats should obviously include in their articles of impeachment.
  • Financial fraud: In his testimony before Congress in February, Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen said, under oath, that Trump had issued hush money payments for Stormy Daniels to him while in the White House as part of a criminal conspiracy to commit financial fraud. Images of the checks were made available to Congress. Of all the once presidency-ending scandals Trump has managed to survive, this is among the simplest. After the Cohen hearing, a HuffPost/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of voters and a 45 percent plurality of independents believed that Trump had indeed committed financial fraud.
  • Emoluments: Earlier this month, a Hill-HarrisX poll found that 63 percent of voters—including 62 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans—believe that federal employees staying at Trump’s properties as they travel constitutes a conflict of interest. They are correct. The corruption here implicates not only Trump but a wider circle that includes his cabinet officials. 
  • The wall: This is one of the scandals we know the least about. It was reported several weeks ago that Trump offered pardons to officials who might commit crimes in order to make progress on the border wall. Politically, both the wall and the racism animating Trump’s border policy remain deeply unpopular. With potential criminality thrown in the mix, this would be particularly promising allegation for Democrats to explore in hearings that might include testimony from those who might be most impacted by the wall’s construction.
  • Migrant separations and detentions: A president needn’t commit a criminal offense to be impeached—Congress ultimately decides what conduct it finds troubling enough to warrant proceedings. The articles drafted and approved by the House against Andrew Johnson included the charge that he had besmirched his opponents in Congress and deployed overheated rhetoric in a series of speeches. Congress could use that latitude to indict Trump for his administration’s racism and immorality, which underpins, among other policies, the administration’s willingness to detain migrants—including children separated from their families—in abusive conditions  for the purpose of deterring immigration to the United States. This is among the most grotesque things an American president has openly done in many years, and it is long past time for the Democratic Party to bring those families before the public and put the administration on trial for its immigration policy before a national audience. 

The list of the president’s offenses is, of course, very nearly endless—House Democrats could easily bring in the Muslim ban, the administration’s treatment of Puerto Rico, or the deployment of American troops on U.S. soil for political reasons ahead of last year’s midterms. Examinations of the president’s personal unfitness for office could extend as far back as the president’s long history of alleged sexual misconduct and abuse or encompass his demagoguery, lies, and attacks on the press today. 

No impeachment process could realistically include everything Trump has done. House Democrats should settle on no more than six scandals that might, together, tell a story about how much Trump’s Republican supporters are willing to tolerate in the service of their inequality-exacerbating agenda—from the president’s personal graft and efforts to undermine the rule of law and our presidential elections to the racism of his inhumane and perhaps even criminal immigration agenda.  They should make those scandals the subject of televised hearings run mostly by trained attorneys who might be more gifted at cross-examinations than Democratic lawmakers and who would also give impeachment hearings the legalistic imprimatur Democrats so plainly crave. When articles are drafted, jittery freshmen and swing seat Democrats can vote against items that go uncomfortably far for them, giving them an opportunity to perform moderation or independence from the party for voters in their districts, while still allowing a broad set of hearings to take place. It’s the hearings that really matter, no matter what articles are ultimately approved by the House and sent to their inevitable doom in the Senate.

Thoughtful writers have criticized this potential approach over the past few days. The Nation’s Jeet Heer, for instance, argued Wednesday that a broad impeachment would “run the risk of getting bogged down in details” and be more easily framed by Republicans as a partisan exercise. “Partisanship is in fact the only thing that is keeping Trump viable,” he wrote. “If Democrats go after Trump with everything but the kitchen sink, the public might well have a harder time remembering the specific facts of the most damaging scandal. Republicans might more easily conclude that the goal is to get Trump on anything the Democrats can find. Further, an expansive impeachment would drag on, with Trump and his allies doing everything to slow down the process.”

It’s both true and not terribly significant that a narrower impeachment would include fewer details for the public to monitor. If impeachment hurts Trump, it won’t be because busy and distracted voters develop a command of all the relevant facts of whatever case the Democrats bring forward—as politicos and members of the media might—but because the impeachment process puts a dark, amorphous cloud over the administration that builds on existing notions about Trump. It’s not actually clear, moreover, which of Trump’s scandals would be most damaging, and it seems far too early to tell whether the Ukraine material might be uniquely problematic for him. Most of the increase in support for impeachment shown in polls this week has come not from Republicans or Independents, but from Democrats apparently responding to leadership’s decision that the time for impeachment has come. 

We have no hard reason to believe this is the slam dunk case Democrats have waited for politically and the experience of focusing the impeachment question on the Mueller investigation should make Democrats wary of trying the same again here. It’s assured that Republicans will convince the vast majority that Democrats are out “to get Trump” no matter how broadly or narrowly the House constructs its case. The risk that the administration could slow the process isn’t much of a risk at all—Democrats are ultimately in control of the investigations and can decide to bring them to a close with the drafting of articles at any time. They could even include the administration’s stonewalling as part of their case.

Things should slow down a bit anyway. Democrats should use their recess to put the brakes on an impeachment drive already heading in the wrong direction and think clearly about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. We’ve entered a new, historic moment that will be read in the years ahead not only as a profound comment on this presidency, but on those tasked with addressing it. It’s now up to Democrats whether the record will show that they did all they could at this juncture or whether they chose instead to make the process easier on themselves—to trade expediency for justice.