Democrat strategy around impeachment is ambiguous. Their Constitutional duty is not.
Congressional Democrats are commanding caution over the ‘I’ word. In doing so, they are absconding their responsibility.
The impeachment of a President has only happened twice; Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998–99). For the sake of context, it is worth including Nixon’s almost certain impeachment in 1974. Because of how rare these proceedings are there is a tendency to look too closely at historical precedent and ignore Constitutional certainty. That is wrong.
In all instances the circumstances of impeachment were distinctly different. The offences were different, the make up of Congress was different, the public reaction was different, and the long-term impact on the office was also different.
What has remained the same is the the role and the duty Congress has. That is the constant. The decision from Congress to impeach should be immune from any current political environment or electoral pressure. As detailed in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives have “the sole power of impeachment”, and Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 grants to the Senate “the sole Power to try all Impeachments”.
If you carry on reading, you will get to Article 2, which states: “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanours.”
Before I explain why I think Congressional Democrats are getting their current approach wrong, let me first say: I get it. I get why they are behaving like this. The likes of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Shumer and Adam Schiff have been in the game a long time and understand the intricacies of Washington better than most. Regardless of their personal politics, they are seasoned Congressional members for a reason. They are using their experience to incrementally change their position almost on a weekly basis, edging closer and closer to firing the starting gun. But, their motivations are wrong in doing so.
I understand them when they say they are concerned about the electoral impact impeachment could have on their own party. Bill Clinton’s proceedings started in December 1998, just under two years before an election. Politically speaking, Pelosi’s equivalent, Newt Gingrich was eager to dirty the image of a Democrat president and lead the GOP to an election win in 2000. While the Republicans did win the White House, Clinton survived the Senate trial and the GOP ended up having to rely on the Supreme Court for their election win. Twenty years on, it is hard to tell who came out of those proceedings better; they probably didn’t have the wide-ranging effect that Nixon’s disgrace had, for example, but it was hardly the outcome Congressional Republicans would have hoped for.
Similarly, during Nixon’s almost certain impeachment, the office of the Presidency probably had its darkest day so far. Indeed, Watergate is now synonymous with any high-level scandal both inside and outside of politics. The result of Nixon’s tribulations was worse as it sought to undermine an entire branch of the government, not just a single party or person. Indeed, both Ford’s and Carter’s administrations were cast in the shadow of Nixon’s disgrace and imperilled them both during their time in office.
Moreover, both in Nixon’s and Clinton’s case, partisanship — while very much in existence — was not the all-consuming force it is today. To that point, it is worth remembering that there will be some who would impeach Trump in a heartbeat for any scrap of evidence they could find, and there will also be people who would fight impeachment in the face of the starkest of evidence imaginable. What Pelosi and co can clearly see is the potential damage impeachment could bring to the Democrats who believe they have a very strong chance of winning an election against a one-term President. More importantly, they will be acutely aware of the impact it could have on the entire office of the Presidency; an office which they of course hope to occupy.
This approach has one more string to its bow, I will admit. The impeachment proceedings are inherently and deliberately a political process. Despite Trump’s recent threat to challenge it in the Courts, Nixon Vs. United States 1993 confirmed, in a unanimous verdict, that the Courts would not intervene in impeachment as it was the sole power of the Legislature.
To take this argument to a logical extension, it becomes almost inevitable that impeachment, in some way of another, will be influenced by the political climate in which it is occurring, despite my aforementioned Constitutional warnings otherwise. The most obvious example of which would be Nixon’s decision to resign admit rising impeachment threats. A decision largely stemming from his own political party turning on him, not any major legal development. The idea that the Republican party would turn against Trump is unthinkable in this age, despite a few dissenting voices.
However, regardless of how powerful these people get, or how rich they get, or how long their careers in Washington go on for, one thing will always be supreme. The Constitution.
Away from political interference or electoral context, The Constitution explicitly commands action from Congress on impeachment. It does not offer Congress a get out clause if an election is around the corner or if impeachment isn’t high enough on the voters’ agendas.
If Pelosi and her colleagues are worried about their own personal reputation taking a hit, then there is an argument to say they themselves are not fit for office, either. Regardless, the impeachment process is rightly rigorous, going through multiple hearings in the House before having to secure a two-thirds majority in the Senate, all the while being overseen by the Chief Justice. The overall burden of responsibility is spread across the rest of government.
In addition, there will be many, many twists and turns in an impeachment process; far beyond anyone’s ability to accurately predict at this stage. The argument that impeachment will have negative electoral effects for the Democrats not only fails to respect the Constitution but it is also too short-sighted, relying on too many ‘what ifs’, to be taken seriously. It is made more damning by the fact senior party figures will not allow their own theory to be falsified; they instead operate on the assumption that their political forecasting is supreme.
Ultimately, then, the country could be in a deeply worrying position. With President Trump ‘goading [Congress] to impeach him’, and Congress refusing to give substantial ground and conform to their Constitutional duty, a crisis threatens. The century long system of checks and balances begins to unravel and a President gets away with crimes than any other private citizens would be locked up for.
Impeachment is a last resort. It is not particularly popular with the electoral at the moment and with an election around the corner, it has not yet achieved universal support even from senior Congressional Democrats. It is, however, part of the Constitution and no political circumstance should be allowed to overrule that.
When Democrats ask what is the point in pursuing impeachment at this stage so close to an election and with a Republican Senate. They should seek answers within the Constitution: because it is the right thing to do.
Democrats cannot bemoan Donald Trump’s abuse of his Constitutional powers and responsibility if their own party are not taking theirs seriously either.