It looks more and more like a foregone conclusion that impeachment proceedings will be initiated against Donald Trump in the near future.
Bernie Sanders became the latest Democratic presidential candidate to call for this on Thursday, joining a cast of characters that includes Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Seth Moulton, and Wayne Messam.
Bernie’s quandary is a particularly fraught one. He had equivocated for months on impeachment, lagging behind his chief ‘progressive’ competitor Warren, who was first to call for proceedings after the Mueller report’s release. You may not agree with Warren’s analysis, but at least she read the report and formed an independent conclusion. Bernie, according to a BuzzFeed survey conducted earlier this month, did not read the report — likely because, in keeping with his decades-old political outlook, he prefers to focus on structural inequities such as wealth disparity rather than the fleeting topical controversies of the day. Yet in the turbo-charged Russia Mueller-impeachment drama, this approach proved untenable.
Impeachment will guarantee that the nation is debating not the depredations of Wall Street or the for-profit healthcare system, but whether Trump committed impeachable offenses. Trump’s behavioral flaws and alleged criminality will be front and center, constantly. Democrats can insist that they’re committed to talking about more substantive issues, but to say these will get drowned out would be the understatement of the century. Impeachment proceedings ensure that in the public consciousness, it will be all Trump, all the time. There’s no avoiding this.
It’s hard to see how that political environment will suit Sanders. Once Warren started railing about impeachment, she got a significant uptick in the polls. On a strategic level, she correctly identified a major appetite for an ardently pro-impeachment stance among the Democratic primary electorate. She may even believe in the substance; who knows. Either way, her calculation was successful. While momentum around Warren’s candidacy seems to be building, Bernie appears to be stagnating.
At least two additional Democratic committee chairmen in the House endorsed impeachment proceedings this week: Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, chairman of the Rules Committee, and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. As more committee chairs back impeachment, Nancy Pelosi’s reticence will necessarily erode. Figures across the Party spectrum, from socialists to moderates, now back impeachment. Bernie’s reluctant endorsement is further indication that impeachment has become the one thing that can unify a fractious Democratic coalition. To win the nomination, he must court primary voters who aren’t left-wing ideological diehards. And by declining to get on board the impeachment bandwagon, Sanders was alienating those voters. Though he has belatedly rectified this deficit for now, the political benefits from a pro-impeachment climate will probably flow to candidates like Warren, who are competent on the legal specifics of the Mueller report and related matters. That’s just not Bernie’s bailiwick.
Meanwhile, Trump supporters confidently claim that impeachment will automatically ‘help’ Trump’s re-election hopes. But they’re spewing nonsense — pure unfounded speculation, without empirical basis. Impeachment proceedings in the current political circumstances would be unprecedented. Not unprecedented in the technical sense: impeachment has obviously occurred before. But Bill Clinton was impeached after he’d been re-elected — and over an investigation that originated as a probe into a failed Arkansas land deal. Mueller’s investigation originated as a probe into whether Trump treasonously conspired with a foreign ‘adversary’ to steal an election. The investigation ultimately proved bupkes on that front, but still, the issues are simply incommensurate. Clinton’s ordeal in 1998 and 1999 offers no serious insights into the political ramifications today.
Robert Mueller also has a different kind of political authority from Ken Starr, the Clinton-era special counsel. Starr was perceived as a partisan out to get Clinton, and there was some truth to that. Some of his tactics were egregiously overzealous. But Mueller, at least at first, was imbued with bipartisan credibility. Trump tried to undermine Mueller’s credibility, accusing him of being a compromised, angry Democrat, but that hasn’t really stuck — except for with the most inflamed elements of Trump’s support base. Yes, Mueller also engaged in extremely overzealous, often shameful tactics. But his pronouncements have greater weight than did Starr’s. That’s why Mueller’s first public appearance this week was so significant.
By emerging from the shadows and speaking directly to the American public, Mueller changed the political calculus around impeachment. Booker and Gillibrand revised their positions and called for initiating the proceedings immediately after Mueller’s statement Wednesday. The statement was clearly political: explicitly tailored to goad Congress into embracing impeachment, an inherently political maneuver. Mueller — always extremely deliberate with his words — declared that the Constitution ‘requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing’. There is no ‘process’ available other than impeachment. So this was Mueller endorsing impeachment as explicitly as he could, given the confines of a prosecutor’s remit.
While Mueller poured several gallons of gasoline on the impeachment garbage fire, Rep. Justin Amash is tending to the embers. Two weeks ago, Amash became the first Republican member of Congress to endorse impeachment proceedings, and since then he has been anointed a political hero by Democrats. Republicans accuse him of betrayal and the Freedom Caucus, which he co-founded, has voted to censure him. Even if you disagree with Amash’s analysis on impeachment, as I do, you can still admire his tenacity as an independent and nonpartisan actor — a rarity in Congress.
Amash held a town hall meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich. this week that went over two hours and was dominated by impeachment talk. He condemned his own party’s top brass, including ‘our so-called Leader,’ Kevin McCarthy. ‘I read the Mueller report,’ Amash said of McCarthy. ‘I’m sure he did not read it.’ That took serious gumption, because House Leadership determines everything from committee assignments to whether bills and amendments reach the floor. Amash is seriously jeopardizing his political future by taking the stance that he has, and he should be commended for defending his views in public before a sometimes-hostile audience. When Amash says he is acting from principle, he is almost certainly telling the truth. He may be wrong, but he has courage. And if it’s true that, as Amash claimed during the town hall, ‘a lot of Republicans… think
I’m right about the Mueller report, but just they won’t say it,’ then that’s also a marker of his colleagues’ cowardice.
In one notable exchange at the Grand Rapids town hall, a woman proclaimed that she had knocked on hundreds of doors and made hundreds of phone calls for Amash during his first run for Congress in 2010, and then voted for him in every subsequent election — but was now despondent over what she viewed as his betrayal. Though she wore a pro-Trump shirt, she was at least able to articulate a few cogent thoughts — unlike most of the incoherent MAGA babblers who attended the event. She accused Amash of grandstanding, backstabbing his constituents, and even helping to foster a civil war. She also derided Amash, long a libertarian opponent of state surveillance, as a hypocrite for failing to criticize FISA surveillance abuses against the Trump campaign and administration.
Amash’s antagonist may have had a point about his relative lack of interest in the conduct of the CIA, FBI, and NSA in 2016 and 2017. Nonetheless, he offered a cogent rebuttal, pointing out that he led the (unsuccessful) charge to curtail expansion of FISA surveillance powers in 2018. ‘Guess who signed it into law?’ he added. ‘President Trump.’ Amash also ridiculed GOP colleagues like Devin Nunes, who routinely rail against the FISA abuses to which Trump was allegedly subjected, but sided with Trump when it came to expanding the powers of the actual law. ‘They don’t support FISA reform,’ Amash charged, accurately. ‘They want to protect the president, but the rest of you? Forget about it. The government can spy on all of you, and they don’t give one crap about it.’
Amash’s cheers might be coming mostly from Democrats at the moment, but that doesn’t weaken his principled stand. It should be rebutted on the merits, not by claims of corrupt motives. Either way, he’s still a Republican. Even if he remains the sole member of his party in Congress to back impeachment proceedings, that will give the endeavor a faint hint of bipartisan support. But we’re heading inescapably toward that destination regardless. As former Trump adviser Michael Caputo says, impeachment appears more and more to be a ‘metaphysical certitude’.