The Democrats' impeachment conundrum

The Democrats' impeachment conundrum
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There is a compelling case that President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE committed impeachable offenses. The stylistic shortcomings of the special counsel's congressional testimony and inane questions from dozens of members doesn't change the underlying charges in the Mueller report.

Yet impeachment, now advocated by more than half of House Democrats and a growing number of Senators, would be a mistake; there's no chance of conviction in the Senate and insufficient public support.

The political problem and polarization will be aggravated over the August congressional recess. Members from heavily Democratic districts will be reinforced hearing anti-Trump vitriol; those from swing districts that determine a majority will more likely be reinforced this is a fool's errand.

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Advocates rightly note the need for accountability and deterrence. A partisan House vote for impeachment would at best be accepted by half the country. And there's no political prophylactic for Donald Trump.

As well over a thousand former prosecutors and legal experts — Republicans as well as Democrats — have declared, the Muller report is replete with impeachable charges: The President ordered his counsel, Don McGahn, to have the Attorney General fire Mueller to head off the Trump investigation and then demanded he lie about it; the president instructed a former campaign staffer, Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh This week: House jump-starts effort to prevent shutdown The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same MORE, to order the Attorney General to limit Mueller's investigation to only further interference by the Russians in American elections; he orchestrated a cover up lie about a meeting, during the 2016 campaign, between Russian operatives and his son, son-in-law and campaign manager to get "dirt" on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump's economic approval takes hit in battleground states: poll This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE.

Contrary to White House claims Mueller found that there was "no collusion" between Trump and the Russians, who were trying to help him win the 2016 election, the special counsel said that he couldn't prove there was an explicit agreement between Trump and the Russians, despite the unprecedented number of contacts. 

It goes beyond the Mueller report. The U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York found that Trump ordered an illicit payoff to a former mistress to silence her during the campaign.

Then there’s the emoluments question: Has he used the presidency to enrich himself and his family?

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So why not impeach?

It's instructive to draw on 1974, when I covered the House and the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Unlike now, the president had already won a second term, the next election was in the distance, and the predicate had been set by the Sam Ervin-led Senate Watergate hearings and a relentless federal judge, John Sirica.

The House Judiciary was headed by a publicity-shy chairman, Peter Rodino, working closely with Democratic Majority Leader Tip O'Neill. Democrat Jack Brooks, a very tough customer, was the hammer. 

There were Republicans like Bill Cohen of Maine, Illinois' Tom Railsback, and Hamilton Fish of New York who put country ahead of party. The exemplary outside counsels included Justice Department legend John Doar, the respected Republican Chicago lawyer, Albert Jenner, and Robert Sack, who later became a federal judge on a U.S. Court of Appeals.

None of that is present today — none of it.

Democrats have botched the Mueller report from day one: They failed to focus initially on the incriminating particulars allowing Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrSupreme Court comes to Trump's aid on immigration Words matter, except to Democrats, when it involves impeaching Trump Justice OIG completes probe on FBI surveillance of ex-Trump campaign aide MORE's misleading characterizations to dominate the narrative; a select committee should have been tapped in April, as the Judiciary Committee has proven it's not up to the task.

The Democratic majority, with Judiciary Chairman Jerold Nadler in the lead, has gone angling for headlines and air-time, foolishly elevating Mueller's appearance. On the other side, the Republicans are Trump sycophants who conjured up every conspiracy theory short of blaming the Russian probe on Elvis Presley.

Legal scholars — from Charles Black during the Nixon era to Walter Dellinger today — frame important parameters for impeachment. But, as the founders intended, this is a political decision ultimately. Given the track record thus far, is there any reason to believe impeachment would fare any better?

We’re a long way from 1974, and yet...

One legitimate concern is that the Attorney General is launching an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, designed to draw attention to figures like Glenn Simpson, the head of Fusion GPS, an investigative firm initially hired by a Republican and then a Clinton associate to research Trump and his links to Russia.

It would be a travesty if someday people look back and see Glenn Simpson as the villain of 2016 — rather than Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTaliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead Russians tune out Vladimir Putin Democrats must engage foreign policy to preserve liberal world order MORE, who may well have succeeded in shaping the outcome of an American presidential election.

Therefore, the best of unattractive options may be to proceed with an impeachment inquiry — one which concludes, in the best interest of the country, that the appropriate remedy is to censure Donald Trump.

It won't affect Trump’s behavior, but he would take his place alongside the Joe McCarthys in a hall of infamy.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.