Barely two weeks into Donald Trump's presidency, at the start of the dizzying, disorienting and deeply disturbing year of 2017, Congressman Mark Pocan mentioned the "I" word on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. When the Wisconsin Democrat was recounting some of the first examples of the intersection of personal greed and political abuse that has come to define Trump's tenure, he warned that members of Congress should be “keeping every option open to try to get this administration to function like any other administration in the past — Democrat or Republican.”
“Clearly,” the congressman concluded, “one of those remedies is the power of impeachment.”
As 2017 comes to a close, Pocan seems prescient — as the constitutional crisis that Trump threatens to create makes the power of impeachment an ever more essential option.
Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics who now serves as a senior director focusing on ethics issues for the Campaign Legal Center, offered a sense of what is at stake in mid-December, when he warned the Trump administration, its surrogates, and its allies to back off from what the center refers to as “their attempt to undermine the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.”
Noting efforts by one of the president’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, and others to “muddy the waters and impede Mueller’s investigation,” the center issued a statement Dec. 15 in which Shaub said: "The coordinated effort by President Trump and his surrogates to discredit the Mueller investigation raises serious alarms. Rather than making themselves complicit in this assault on the rule of law, members of Congress should send a clear message to the president that firing Mueller is a red line he must not cross."
Shaub is right about the red line. If Trump fires Mueller, as many now speculate is possible, the United States will find itself in a constitutional crisis — where the executive branch rejects scrutiny, checks and balances, and the rule of law in order to protect itself from accountability. The extent of threat was made clear when a Trump-aligned member of the House, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, said on CNN: “Congress has an obligation to expose what I believe is a corrupt investigation and I call on my Republican colleagues to join me in firing Bob Mueller.” Following that, Shaub tweeted: “Make a plan folks. Be ready to take to the streets. This is an attack on our Republic.”
Taking to the streets is always a good idea when the oligarchs and plutocrats spin out of control. That’s why the founding generation of the American experiment established First Amendment rights to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances. But it is important, now, before a potential crisis becomes a real one, to signal what that reaction will be.
Citizens need to know what they will demand when they assemble and petition for the redress of grievances.
So what’s the right demand if a president attacks the Republic?
When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 outlined the impeachment power, there was a good deal of clarity regarding when and how it should be employed. It was to serve as a check and balance on the executive branch in general, and on presidents in particular. “No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued,” argued George Mason. This check on presidential abuses of power provided an answer to the questions that vexed Mason: “Shall any man be above justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?”
Some members of Congress recognize their duty in these times to answer those questions with a clear commitment to hold this president to account. Congressmen such as Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen have proposed impeachment resolutions — with an appropriate focus on concerns about presidential obstruction of justice, and with an appropriate sense of urgency. But when Texas Democrat Al Green raised the issue of impeachment in the House this month, his motion was tabled on a 364-58 vote.
Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore was one of the courageous 58, but most Democrats joined with Republicans to table Green's motion.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland released a joint statement that read: "Legitimate questions have been raised about his fitness to lead this nation. Right now, congressional committees continue to be deeply engaged in investigations into the president’s actions both before and after his inauguration. The special counsel’s investigation is moving forward as well, and those inquiries should be allowed to continue. Now is not the time to consider articles of impeachment."
Supporters of a robust system of checks and balances were disappointed by the caution Pelosi and Hoyer displayed. But the attention the Democratic leaders paid to Mueller’s inquiry establishes a red line of the sort Shaub describes.
Pelosi and Hoyer have always been cautious about impeachment. But if the president fires Mueller in 2018, there will be no more room for caution. Impeachment will become the watchword of 2018.
For now, Democrats would be wise to take Pocan's counsel and keep the impeachment option at the ready. Indeed, one of the best ways to defend the Mueller inquiry is for House Democrats to make it clear at this point that — while they are, indeed, a minority in the House and Senate, and while they surely face the obstacle of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s partisanship-over-principle approach to governing — their response to the firing of Robert Mueller would be an absolute and unequivocal demand for the impeachment of Donald Trump.
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