To impeach or not to impeach? How Democrats should weigh the question.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images


If Democrats were hoping for some shocking moment of revelation in Robert Mueller’s testimony yesterday — if they thought that maybe he’d plunk down a secret tape recording of President Trump and Vladimir Putin working out the Electoral College math for 2020, or that maybe Mueller would lift up his sleeves to display the tire marks from when Bill Barr tried to run him down on his way into the Capitol to testify — then they were again disappointed.

Mueller showed up, reluctantly, to the House side of the Capitol as exactly what he’d promised to be: the living embodiment of a dry, 448-page report and nothing more. Asking Mueller to reflect on the president’s state of mind was like expecting Siri to offer up her thoughts on Hegel.

So now Democrats are left with the same question that’s increasingly divided the party in recent weeks — and is almost certain to spill out into the party’s nomination contest, too.

Should they impeach Donald Trump?

Leaving political calculation aside for the moment, the answer depends, I suppose, on what you think impeachment is really for.

If you’ve grown up in America and you’re under, say, 30, you may not realize that impeachment wasn’t always bandied about as a remedy for bad presidents. Until Richard Nixon’s presidency collapsed in 1974 (he really was caught saying some pretty shocking things on tape), the idea of impeachment was mostly considered a historical oddity, like dueling with pistols, or mock turtlenecks.

But then came Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and something called the Starr report, and like so much else in our politics, the extreme became the perfectly plausible. That’s especially true now, given what we know about the ugly circumstances of Trump’s election and his bullying of prosecutors and witnesses.

Not since Clinton’s nadir has the possibility of impeachment taken on so much weight or relevance. Not since Nixon has any president watched members of his inner circle strike deals and go to jail as prosecutors circle the White House.

Ever since the Mueller report was submitted to the Justice Department (and then blatantly mischaracterized by the attorney general) in April, Mueller has overtly hinted that Congress should at least take up the question of impeachment.

Mueller takes the position that, since a sitting president can’t be indicted, it’s not up to investigators to reach any conclusion about presidential crimes; the Constitution gives that power expressly to the House.

As of this week, more than 90 Democrats in Congress have said they support impeaching Trump. Jerry Nadler, the New York congressman who chairs the Judiciary Committee, pointed this week to “very substantial evidence that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors,” which, as you probably know, happens to be the constitutional standard for removing a commander in chief.

All of which makes for a halfway compelling case, if you look at impeachment chiefly as a legal proceeding. This seems to be Mueller’s point, and Nadler’s too — that the purpose of impeachment is to provide a special court system for law-breaking presidents who are otherwise shielded from prosecution.

But impeachment isn’t just a trial mechanism. If it were, the Framers probably wouldn’t have left us with vague language about “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which could cover anything from murder to shoplifting. They might have left the trial business to a panel of actual judges, rather than handing the whole thing over to Congress, which was bound to be saddled with political biases and arcane rivalries.

No, impeachment isn’t just a legal remedy. Nor is it a way for opposition parties to negate the results of an election, no matter how clouded by allegations of wrongdoing.

It’s a political tool. It’s designed specifically to carry out the public will.

Impeachment is there not principally to give the government a way to level charges, but to give the electorate a way to change its mind. It’s there so that if a duly elected president acts in a way that thoroughly appalls the voters and squanders their confidence in the integrity of the office, we don’t have to wait for the next election to send that president home.

This is why the system set forth for impeachment — the House acting as prosecutors and the Senate as a jury — is so onerous and subject to political pressure. The idea is to make sure that charges are heard, and drastic action taken, only when the public demands it, and not simply because a statute was violated.

It’s also why Nixon would surely have been the first president to be impeached and convicted, had he not seen the wisdom of resigning first. By the time Nixon left office, only about a quarter of the country approved of his presidency. The public sentiment then was clear and overwhelming.

Which leads us back to Trump. He’s not a popular president, by any stretch — even the most Trump-friendly poll will tell you that about 45 percent of the country approves of the way he’s doing his job right now, and it’s probably closer to 40. That’s not impressive.

But for whatever set of reasons, cultural or political, Trump’s behavior as outlined in Mueller’s report has not outraged the vast majority of the country. The bottom hasn’t fallen out. Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 are not, en masse, clamoring to reverse the verdict.

According to CNN’s polling, not quite half the country favored impeachment at the height of that sentiment last fall. More recently, it’s closer to 40 percent.

Which tells you that, even if the House majority decides to bring articles of impeachment, the case will almost certainly die in the Senate, where Republicans will feel no pressure to walk away from one of their own. And at least some segment of voters who don’t much like the president would probably rally to his side anyway, having watched the other party try to invalidate their votes.

It all adds up to this: Trump may well have committed crimes, and maybe he’ll face prosecution after he leaves office. (He’ll probably commit a few more before it’s all over, because, you know, that’s just how he rolls.)

But as long as the public remains divided, impeachment is a dead end, legally and politically. That’s how it’s designed to work.

The way to remove Trump from office is to beat him when he’s on the ballot. It’s an eminently achievable goal right now — and impeachment would only get in the way.

*****

Before I leave you this week, some breaking news: This was my final column for Yahoo News. We launched “Political World” (the name comes from a Dylan song) five and a half years ago with the first Chris Christie interview after “Bridgegate”; we end it with the subject of Donald Trump’s possible impeachment. For those of you who’ve read and written and sometimes raged, I really can’t express to you how grateful I am. You were in my mind when I sat down to write every week.

I hope I’ve made you think, and I hope you’ll continue to read the terrific work of my talented Yahoo colleagues. A million thanks.

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