We have seen this movie before, and I am fairly certain how it will end. Barring some potential massive revelation, 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 will not be leaving the White House prior to January 2020. Why? Because this controversy, like the many that have preceded it, is being refracted through partisan prisms. When that happens, as it invariably does in our polarized national climate, incumbents can breathe a sigh of relief.
Democrats will bellow of scandal, treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors. Republicans will wring their hands, deflect and minimize, and eventually settle on whataboutism, analogizing to what others have done. “He is no worse than others in the swamp” will be the refrain. Or we will be told that President Trump simply had to get to the bottom of possible corruption by former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE and his son.
This is the Clinton impeachment redux in a more partisan and poisonous atmosphere and with the party roles reversed. Whereas Republicans emphasized the rule of law in 1998, Democrats do so today. Whereas Democrats in 1998 frantically searched for promiscuous lawmakers and spoke of coup by impeachment and overturning the will of the people, Republicans today are casting about to find prior attempts to use the White House for political gain and insisting that it takes acts of the worst villainy to oust a president because after all the people elected him.
President Trump should not have sought the foreign investigation of an opponent in his phone call with the Ukranian president. Not only was it misguided, but it was wrong. While presidents wield tremendous authority over foreign affairs, that power should not be used to tear down domestic opponents or to bolster their own standing. If there was something truly worthy of investigation, he should have left the matter to the officials in his administration. It lowers the dignity of the Oval Office when a sitting president presses a foreign government to investigate an opponent.
We know with certainty that if a Democratic administration did anything like this, Republicans would be screaming. We know this in part because when a Democratic administration investigated the Trump campaign, Republicans screamed. We also know that when we learned that the Democratic National Committee received damaging information about Paul Manafort from the Ukrainian embassy, Republicans shrieked about foreign intervention and Democrats showed willingness to stoop low.
Yet we also recognize that if a Democratic president made this call to a foreign leader, Democrats would engage in their own whataboutism. We know this because that is what Democrats did in the wake of what now appears to have been a seriously flawed investigation of a presidential campaign. A Democratic administration used the considerable resources of the federal government to investigate a candidate based on flimsy evidence and a fake dossier. Apparently, no one thought the Christopher Steele dossier had any substance or was chock full of facts. Nonetheless, it was used to secure judicial approval to spy on an American citizen.
Democrats could not have cared less about the dubious origins of the Russia investigation on collusion or about the banana republic precedent it set for the investigation of political opponents. Nor did they seem the least bit interested that the Democratic National Committee also sought information from Ukraine. Instead, many Democrats had too much hope in the theory that President Trump was a Russian asset because that would mean he would have to leave office or even better yet be put in prison.
Partisans on both sides have come to view the opposition as truly vicious and are predisposed to distrust and belittle whatever scandal the other side is pushing. A scandal becomes yet another occasion to denigrate the talking points of the other side. Too many Americans have become far too partisan, always thinking the worst about the other party and reflexively willing to defend their own. It is sad to say that in many ways, partisans are right to think the worst of the other party, because they never fail to live up to low expectations. Both sides exaggerate, inflate, and denounce.
There is no easy way to transcend this toxic partisanship. But partisans of all stripes could pull back, calm down, and consider what they would think, feel, and say if the shoe were on the other foot. If the most partisan could adopt that perspective, it might go some way toward cooling down the temperatures roiling Washington this fall. Perhaps President Trump can concede that he was wrong in this instance. Even if he was victimized by an investigation, he was wrong to seek the foreign investigation of an opponent. Then perhaps his opponents can sheepishly admit that they were wrong to investigate him for years based on a phony dossier.
Saikrishna Prakash is a senior fellow with the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs and the James Monroe distinguished professor at the University of Virginia Law School. He is an expert on executive authority and the Constitution and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Living Presidency: An Originalist Argument Against Its Ever Expanding Powers.”