The Constitution permits impeachment in the event of “treason, high crimes and misdemeanors.” But, as Gerald Ford once wisely noted, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” In other words, impeachment is not only a legal determination, but ultimately a political decision.
Even though both special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrThe Hill's Morning Report - US warns Kremlin, weighs more troops to Europe Jan. 6 committee chair says panel spoke to William Barr William Barr's memoir set for release in early March MORE both concluded there was not enough evidence to officially indict the president for collusion or obstruction of justice, such a conclusion was undoubtedly influenced by a longtime Justice Department policy that a sitting president could not be indicted. Mueller recognized the political nature of his investigation and has passed the baton to Congress to make a political decision.
The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives faces a genuine dilemma of whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President TrumpDonald TrumpNorth Korea conducts potential 6th missile test in a month Kemp leading Perdue in Georgia gubernatorial primary: poll US ranked 27th least corrupt country in the world MORE. The impeachment undercurrent has been alive since Trump’s inauguration. But with the fresh details revealed in the Mueller report, the issue is now front and center. The report described numerous instances of the president attempting to squash or thwart the investigation.
The Mueller report is deeply disturbing to many who have read it after removing their partisan glasses. Surprisingly though, among prominent Republicans, Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRomney participating in fundraiser for Liz Cheney Budowsky: President Biden leads NATO against Russian aggression Officer who directed rioters away from senators says Jan. 6 could have been a 'bloodbath' MORE (R-Utah) has stood almost alone in bemoaning the behavior of the president described in the report: “I am sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President. I am also appalled that, among other things fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia.”
It is telling that other Republicans, whose support would be necessary in the Senate to convict and remove the president from office, have not spoken up to condemn the president’s questionable actions. The lack of a bipartisan consensus is something the House must seriously weigh when deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against the president.
If the Democratic majority in the House impeaches the president without broad political consensus in the Senate (and country) to convict the president and remove him from office, impeachment will be weaponized by the president in the 2020 campaign. Trump will argue that liberal Democrats and the news media are out to get him, that he has done nothing wrong, and that you can’t impeach a president who has done a great job. This mantra will play well with his loyal base.
Democrats should never underestimate the president’s genius in branding, marketing, and creating his desired narrative with memorable and constantly repeated tweets. In other words, impeachment without conviction would play into the president’s hands and allow him a potential path to win a second term.
On the other hand, there are Democrats who argue that the House should begin impeachment proceedings now given what they view as plain evidence that the president obstructed justice and willingly accepted campaign help from a foreign power. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) has stated “there is ample evidence of collusion in plain sight.”
Surprisingly, these Democrats could look for support for immediate impeachment from the president’s loudest cheerleader in the Senate, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamClyburn predicts Supreme Court contender J. Michelle Childs would get GOP votes The names to know as Biden mulls Breyer's replacement Schumer vows to vote on Biden Supreme Court pick with 'all deliberate speed' MORE (R-S.C.). In 1999, Graham stated: “You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if the Senate determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role…because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
The other argument in support of impeaching the president, regardless of whether the Republican Senate agrees to convict the president, is that this is a moment in history that demands the president be held accountable. Trump’s behavior as president (and in the campaign) has shattered all existing protocol and accepted norms and has begun to chip large blocks away from what it means to be a constitutional republic. Without such a statement that impeachment would make, would the House be complicit in normalizing the president’s aberrant behavior and actions? Does a line need to be drawn now as a message to future leaders with similar authoritarian instincts?
To impeach or not to impeach both have strong arguments in their favor. Ultimately, however, because impeachment is a political process, Democrats should be very cautious about instigating impeachment proceedings against the president because to do so may result in Trump winning a second term in the White House.
Between the two extremes of impeaching or not impeaching the president is a third option that seems to be the direction of many in Democratic leadership in the House. Under that option, which recognizes that there needs to be broad consensus in the both the House and the Senate before moving forward with impeachment, Democrats would continue to investigate the president, subpoena records and individuals to testify and assess the extent of the president’s potentially impeachable offenses. If the results of those investigations shock the country — Democrats and Republicans alike — then the House should move forward with impeachment.
The impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden: A good coach knows when to change up the team Perdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill MORE were both politically motivated. Richard Nixon resigned after Senate Republicans turned on him and told him that with new Watergate revelations, he would be convicted and removed from office by the Senate. Based on the volume and nature of the evidence uncovered in the Mueller investigation, the president’s potentially impeachable offenses are far more egregious than anything Johnson or Clinton did, and even Nixon’s corrupt presidency looks amazingly tame by comparison.
Without a broad consensus, the mood of the nation may be more interested in having the newly elected Democratic majority pass significant and important legislation to improve the lives of all Americans, recognizing the unfortunate reality that the Senate will not even take up such legislation.
Certainly, there is a contingent in the Democratic Party, including some 2020 presidential candidates who are arguing for impeachment proceedings now. Ultimately, while such calls for impeachment are good sound bites that play well to people’s outrage at the president’s behavior and actions, it is not a wise strategy for ending Trump’s lease of the White House.
Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the author of “101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other – and What It Means to Us,” available in June. He is the founder of PresidentialHistory.com.