A little while ago I watched the House Judiciary Committee vote to hold the Attorney General of the United States, William Barr, in contempt of Congress. This is only the second time in our nation's history that an A.G. has gotten a contempt citation.
It's a big deal. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the chair of the committee, just told reporters that we're now in a constitutional crisis.
The Trump administration is refusing to honor every subpoena Congress issues. The Trump administration refuses to allow Robert Mueller to testify about the report he issued into Russian interference with the 2016 election, how Trump officials interacted with that Russian effort, and Trump's efforts to obstruct the Mueller investigation. The Trump administration has declared that the entire Mueller Report is subject to executive privilege, which is legal bullshit.
So this has gone way beyond the usual fights between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Trump and his cronies are refusing to recognize Congress as a co-equal branch within our republic.
Plenty of people, including Nadler, if I recall his news conference correctly, are saying that we're well on the way to becoming a banana republic ruled by a strong man who refuses to abide by long-established norms of presidential behavior.
Problem is, our system of government is largely based on those norms.
Sure, laws and the Constitution are important. But equally important has been unwritten norms such as: the president speaks truthfully most of the time; Congressional oversight isn't stonewalled; a free press is encouraged, not disparaged; subpoenas from Congress are taken seriously, not rejected entirely.
Impeachment is the strongest weapon Congress has to constrain abuses of presidential power.
Yet it is clear that Senate Republicans would never vote in favor of an impeachment resolution sent over by the House. Further, impeachment isn't favored by most Americans, though beginning impeachment-related investigtions is more popular.
Why attempt to impeach, though, when impeachment would never happen? I realize the emotional appeal of impeachment. What Trump is doing is beyond bad. It is despicable. All presidents behave badly at times. Trump is the first president who truly is acting like a wanna-be dictator.
The courts are another check on presidential power.
However, lawsuits by Congress and others likely would take many months, if not years, to be settled. And even if a favorable court decision happened earlier, who is going to make the Trump administration act in accord with it?
Attorney General Barr has sacrificed himself onto the altar of Full-Out Trumpian Acquiescence, like so many other Republicans.
When the head of the Justice Department isn't interested in pursuing even-handed justice, but acts like the president's personal attorney, and the Supreme Court seems to be firmly in Trump's camp, it's hard to be optimistic about the American legal system being a serious check on Trump's dictatorial ambitions.
This is why my reasonable side says focus on the 2020 election, while my emotional side says impeach the S.O.B.
Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, had some provocative tweets today that resonated with me. They were in response to someone who argued that Nancy Pelosi isn't being a bold enough leader.
FiveThirtyEight staff engaged in an interesting chat today on the subject of "Nancy Pelosi is Going After Barr and Rejecting Impeachment. Is That a Smart Plan?" There were good arguments on both sides. Here's the final chat comment.
The big issue, I think, is that the House Democrats have to decide what they’re going to do about their relative lack of power, compared to the executive branch, and they may have to do that sooner rather than later. Pelosi can try to continue to stake out a middle ground, but they are running up against some big structural limitations — and I agree that impeachment lite is not a workable strategy in the long term.
It seems like the central challenge for Democrats is: Can you run on normalcy and basically treat Trump as an aberration? Or do you have to deal with the structural problems his presidency is exposing? The latter, of course, is incredibly hard to do.
By "impeachment lite," I believe this person meant that Democrats do as much investigating into wrongdoing by Trump as possible, but hold off on actually trying to impeach him. The obvious problem with this is that the more wrongdoing that's discovered, the harder it becomes to ignore it -- and accompanying calls from the Democratic base to impeach Trump.
Here's the way I see things.
I ask myself a couple of questions: (1) What if the Dems attempt to impeach Trump and he wins re-election in 2020? Would I be happy? Answer is NO. I don't want Trump impeached. I want him out of office ASAP. (2) What if the Dems don't try to impeach Trump and he loses re-election in 2020? Would I be happy? YES. Deliriously.
This shows that, along with most Democrats and a large share of independents, what I most care about is Trump being kicked out off office in the 2020 election. Impeachment is secondary. If it helps accomplish a Trump defeat, great. If it doesn't, not great.
Another way of putting it is, what's the core problem facing our country?
I'm optimistic enough to say that it really is Donald Trump, not a desire among Republicans and Trump voters to refashion our constitutional democracy into a banana republic ruled by a succession of strong men (and maybe women).
So in line with the FiveThirtyEight quote above, I'm inclined to view Trump as an aberration. A dangerous aberration, yes. An aberration who has to be fought mightily, yes. But an aberration that can be out of office in January 2021 if Democrats play their cards right between now and the 2020 election.
Impeachment proceedings would suck all of the air out of the news cycle.
Even if Democrats want to talk about Trump's latest attempt to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, further enrich the already wealthy, engage in unneeded trade wars, screw up our relationships with long-time allies, promote hateful immigration policies, ignore the dangers of climate change, and such, impeachment will be front and center in voters' minds until the Senate votes to absolve Trump.
Which will lead Trump to scream another witch hunt at the top of his lungs just before the 2020 election, most likely.
Instead, I favor the Democrats saying, "We're not going to impeach Donald Trump in Congress. Instead, the voters are going to have the opportunity to remove him from office in November 2020. Yes, we believe he has engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors. We just want you, the American public, to make the decision to deny him a second term."