Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was nothing less than a searing indictment of President Donald Trump’s actions, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the House Democrats are acting.
By performing a careful and swift investigation of the Trump’s actions, both before and after he became president, Mueller provided the president’s opponent everything they needed to declare him unfit for office and ripe for removal. The special counsel laid out detailed, evenhanded, and persuasive analysis that Trump obstructed justice on multiple occasions. He details how the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, was much more in league with the Russians during the 2016 election than we knew. Mueller showed how Trump worked tirelessly to cover this up, that he betrayed his oath to uphold the laws, that his associates broke the law in order to follow his lead — all while, as we know, the president ignored the true threat to the country.
And, for that matter, it showed how he abused his power in other ways, most notably in demanding that then-Attorney General Jeff Session investigate Hillary Clinton.
All of this makes clear that impeachment is warranted on multiple grounds. Steadfast opponents of the president would have pounced. But Democrats flinched.
As Walter Dellinger, who has served in Office of Legal Counsel, argued in a new piece in the Washington Post, the House’s efforts to investigate the president and pick over the details of the report obscure the main takeaway:
My concern is that the House’s focus on process — such as requesting redacted material — constitutes a strong, implicit suggestion that what we have seen from Mueller is not enough to assess the president. That is just false. The report lays out in detail specific acts of obstruction by the president as well as the extensive evidence that backs up those claims. More than 900 former federal prosecutors (including Republicans and Democrats) have publicly declared that if anyone else had committed those same acts they would be under indictment.
What will we say in the event the remaining 7 percent of text adds little or nothing to the overwhelming case of presidential wrongdoing already made out by the report? By not having begun impeachment proceedings or taken other strong action, Democrats may have conceded the debate over the Mueller report’s conclusion. Democrats are fighting on process grounds where the White House has some plausible arguments and where winning may add little or nothing to what we already know.
And yet while the Democrats have suggested that the report requires more investigation, Trump and his defenders have argued that Mueller has vindicated the president. And if even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump’s most formidable foe, still thinks the merits of impeachment are debatable, why should Republicans have any reason to doubt the president’s claims of exoneration? After a full special counsel investigation, another investigation does seem tedious and redundant. Insisting on it really does send the message that Democrats are sore losers, rather than conveying the truth that the Mueller report painted a devastating portrait of the president, even worse than many knew, and one that should be entirely unacceptable to any decent American.
The media deserves some of the blame. As I’ve argued, much of the mainstream narrative about the Mueller report has been wrong or misleading. Many serious reporters have said, falsely, that the report showed Mueller found “no collusion.” And very few outlets have emphasized that Mueller leaves open the possibility of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and that at least one of Trump’s attempts to obstruct the investigation may have been successful at covering up this evidence.
But blaming the media won’t get you very far. Reporters take cues from politicians, often trying to position themselves between the views of the two parties. Democrats are ultimately responsible for shaping the narrative they want the public to hear about Trump, and for making the case that he should be removed from office. Republicans, for all their faults, know this — the GOP is much better at shaping the media to cover the story it wants.
Dellinger suggested an alternative course for the Democrats’ to take:
All I am saying is that every day we should have been shouting from the rooftops: “The president is failing to defend democracy from attack”; “The president’s campaign welcomed and encouraged Russia’s efforts to change our election results”; “The president obstructed justice”; and “The president daily undermined the rule of law.” But we have instead been whispering in the hallways of Congress that “we need to see the redactions.” That emphasis is a mistake that needs to be (and hopefully can be) rectified.
But Democrats have their reasons for taking their tepid approach. They think the politics of impeachment are bad, and they’re afraid that impeaching Trump would be giving him what he wants: the ability to play the victim.
Here, Democrats just need a dose of reality. Trump will always play the victim — it’s his default position. If Democrats impeach him, he’ll be the victim of mean Democrats. If Democrats don’t impeach him, then he was clearly the victim of Mueller and James Comey and John Brennan and Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and whoever else who dared investigate him, because after all, the investigation didn’t even yield enough evidence for an impeachment!
Pelosi, who has at times played Trump like a fiddle, has let herself get psyched out. A conservative politician — in the small “c” sense of “conservative” — she has held her party back from going too far toward impeachment. But she has effectively let Trump put her on the defensive, when he should, by all rights, be the defendant. Recently, she contorted herself into the nonsensical position of saying Trump was “almost self-impeaching,” a meaningless phrase that conveniently absolves her of any responsibility at all.
Historian and journalist Yoni Applebaum has argued that the Democrats’ fear of impeachment rests on a mistake. While the impeachment of President Bill Clinton didn’t hurt him much in the polls, there’s little sign that it offered any benefit to the other presidents who were impeached:
2. From Feb. 1-4, 1974, Gallup polled on Nixon’s job approval—28% approved, 59% disapproved. On Feb. 6, the House voted to authorize an impeachment inquiry. From Feb. 8-18, Gallup polled again. Nixon’s rating sank to 27% approve, 63% disapprove.
— Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) May 7, 2019
3. We don’t have polling for Andrew Johnson. It’s difficult, though, to read the contemporary record—starting with the House referral on Jan. 7, 1867—as showing his political support being bolstered by the endless impeachment hearings he faced.
— Yoni Appelbaum (@YAppelbaum) May 7, 2019
Defenders of the Pelosi’s position point out that impeachment hasn’t been particularly popular in recent polls. But it’s impossible to separate that fact from Democrats’ own conflicting and unclear messaging on the Mueller report. Had they treated it like the constitutional bombshell that it is, public opinion might be in a stronger position for accepting impeachment. Perhaps people would at least understand better what Mueller said.
That’s not to say that there are no risks to taking the impeachment route. It could lead to a polling bounce for Trump. It could distract from issues like health care with Democrats think they have the advantage in 2020.
But nothing in politics is without risk — including letting the confusion fester about the seriousness of the Mueller report. The question is how you make use of the opportunities you’re given. The Mueller report gave Democrats an unprecedented opportunity to hold Trump accountable for his sprawling abuses of power. Doing so not only could have hurt him in the next presidential election but reset the standards to which presidents are held. But Democrats fumbled their opportunity. And it’s not clear they’ll get a second chance.