Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have got to stop shirking their duty. They have to stop looking for others to confront President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE on his transgressions when the Constitution assigns to Congress the power to check the executive. It is time for the House to open an impeachment inquiry, begin the process of hearing testimony from witnesses and drafting specific articles that describe the president's unacceptable conduct.
For many months, Democrats have been hoping that others would relieve them of the difficult constitutional responsibility. We’ve seen Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggest that Trump’s family or staff should “stage an intervention,” and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) suggest that Trump “should resign.” More seriously, Democrats have been pinning their hopes on making Trump’s tax returns public, thereby revealing Trump’s past (maybe current, see: emoluments case) business practices as rife with fraud and corruption.
And of course, Democrats long have hoped that the report compiled by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate 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 Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE would provide them with some sort of incontrovertible “smoking gun” that would allow them to go after the president without fear of a political backlash. In fact, as more than 800 former prosecutors have attested, the report did — but Democrats still have refused to pursue impeachment. Mueller’s public statement on Wednesday, where he explained that Department of Justice (DOJ) policy prohibited him from pursuing an indictment against a sitting president, only reinforces this view.
Given that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and long-time attorney, Michael Cohen, both are in prison, Democrats’ hopes about Mueller’s report may not have been wildly unfounded. Still, it was strategically foolish for the Democrats to make actually committing a crime the only bar for opening an impeachment inquiry. As law professors Charles Black Jr. and Philip Bobbitt explained in their primer on impeachment: “The English history seems to establish with some clarity that the English did not understand the phrase [‘high crimes and misdemeanors’] as denoting only common crimes, but in some sense saw it as including serious misconduct in office, whether or not punishable as crime in the ordinary courts” (emphasis in original, p. 44).
Although they also argue that whether something rises to a justifiably “high-political” level (or “not having any connection with partisan politics, or with views on policy”) will be determined by the facts of the case, the behavior described in the Mueller report is astonishing and scandalous. The report reveals multiple instances of moral laxity with regard to campaign laws and national security, and then, once Trump became president, clear wrongdoing. Notably, Black and Bobbitt also wrote, “Obstruction of justice is ordinarily a wrong as well as a crime, and when it occurs in connection with governmental matters, and when its perpetrator is the person principally charged with taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, there must come a point at which excuses fail” (p. 41).
Put simply, Congress needs to act now. If they don’t open an impeachment inquiry, they will lose the 2020 election.
Democrats have the logic of the impeachment completely backwards. They won’t lose because they pursued impeachment and failed. Princeton historian Kevin Kruse is right: Donald Trump isn’t Bill Clinton and Bob Mueller isn’t Ken Starr.
Instead, they’ll lose because they failed to pursue impeachment. The reason is that the American public already believes that Democrats are too risk-averse and too rational; that they don’t lead from the heart, even when they genuinely care about doing the right thing. Whether recalling President Obama’s mantra to “not do stupid sh**” in foreign policy (i.e., better to err on the side of inaction, as opposed to action), or the 1988 debate blunder of Michael Dukakis, generally, Democrats are seen as weak and gutless, lacking in courage.
Part of the reason Trump won in 2016 is that the American people knew he would fight for what he believes, even if many didn’t like him or agree with what he said. They admired his “strength” and “authenticity,” even though the basis of his strength was bully behavior (e.g., name-calling and creeping up on Hillary Clinton during their debate) and brutality was the hallmark of his authenticity (e.g., saying that he likes “people who weren’t captured” when asked about Sen. John McCain’s military service and experience as a prisoner of war during Vietnam).
As such, if Democrats ignore Trump’s outlandish conduct and fail to take action, stand up for the Constitution and take the political risk of opening an impeachment inquiry, they will only reinforce the American public’s perception about their party being the “Mommy party” — the party that cares for people, but doesn’t like to fight.
Hillary Clinton didn’t stand up to Trump during her debate when he crept up behind her. She didn’t show emotion, spin on her heel, and tell him to “back off.” First lady Michelle Obama told Democrats at the 2016 convention, “When they go low, we go high.” They appeared and sounded rational, above the fray. But this is not reassuring. When danger is present, a leader must show willingness to go towards the danger, to do battle, even if it means personal harm. This is why we admire those in the military and our first responders.
The only way to stop a bully is with confrontation. Democrats need to show leadership. And as they do, they should take heart that while some criticized Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) at his town hall, he also received a standing ovation and much recognition for his “courage” to call for Trump’s removal from office.
Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.