Of course President Donald Trump should be impeached. In fact, impeachment proceedings should have been initiated as soon as he took office and enacted the Muslim travel ban, or perhaps even before this, as he was in clear violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. But what has been frustrating as news of Trump’s impeachment has taken over headlines is not just the fact that Democrats waited until the final year of his first—though perhaps not his last—term in office, or that they ignored calls to “impeach the motherfucker,” as advised by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
What boggles the mind is not what the trial—which promises to be one of the most contentious and partisan in the history of the country—is, but what it is not: accountability for the vast array of crimes and offenses Trump has committed, especially against people of color. They have been noted from the very beginning: from his criminal neglect of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria to his declaration of a fake national emergency to fund the border wall and his ramping up of drone strikes overseas to his aiding and abetting of Saudi Arabia’s murderous campaign in Yemen, there are no shortage of reasons to remove Trump from office.
Democrats could not be faulted for an approach that anything goes. The criteria for a “high crime or misdemeanor” in Article II of the Constitution is so elastic as to include almost anything. Even things that do not resemble crimes or are peculiar to the office of the president fit the bill. For example, Andrew Johnson was booked on 11 charges, a list so colorful and multifarious as to famously include him uttering “with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues.” Then there is the first of three articles of impeachment prepared against Richard Nixon, namely, making “false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States.” Despite the consternation and hand-wringing of scholars everywhere, in the past, an impeachable offense has effectively been whatever the House says it is.
Going after the president for the totality of crimes and offenses he has committed while in office has been done before.
The albeit-failed attempts to impeach George W. Bush are the most instructive. Dennis Kucinich and Robert Wexler introduced 35 articles in the House in June 2008. From the CIA torture program and the Valerie Plame affair to warrantless spying by the National Security Agency and Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the Kucinich-Wexler articles are as close to comprehensive as an inquiry into a sitting president can get. Fifteen articles are devoted to the Iraq War alone. So why do not Democrats do the same thing and throw in the lot against Trump?
Democrats have not been forthcoming with a satisfactory answer. According to Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, the idea behind the decision to restrict articles of impeachment against Trump to the Ukraine scandal—described as strategic—is that additional articles would be too complicated and confusing for the average citizen to follow, and that the articles that were ultimately adopted—abuse of power and obstruction of Congress—are sufficiently narrow for the American imagination—lest the whole ostensible goal of removal be thrown into jeopardy.
Democrats must think that average Americans are too unintelligent or too apathetic to weigh more than a few offenses in their minds at the same time. It is plausible that unless you are a lawyer or political scientist who has studied constitutional law and U.S. foreign policy you are perhaps going to have a hard time understanding such arcane Latin phrases as “quid pro quo” or the nuances of Russian military intervention in post-Euromaiden Ukraine. But everyone knows it is wrong for a sitting president to misuse charitable funds or award himself a lucrative contract to host a global economic forum. So not only are the ins and outs of the Ukraine scandal obscure, but a whole host of things Trump has done are just as easy to understand, if not easier.
What is more, everyone knows that removal is not going to happen. It is not as if there is a secret tape out there, waiting to be revealed, à la Nixon. The transcript of the phone call Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is the secret tape, and nary a Republican has defected. Nor is it the case that Democratic and Republican senators have joined forces to ensure that Trump’s trial has at least has a veneer of impartiality—unlike former Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who reached across party lines to “fulfill [their] constitutional responsibility in a respectable way” during Bill Clinton’s trial in the Senate 20 years ago.
In fact, it is the opposite. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared at the outset that any trial would be conducted under the auspices of the White House itself.
It is no small feat to initiate impeachment proceedings, and Democrats cannot be blamed for the fact that Republicans have been unyielding in their worship of Trump. But it does not follow that impeachment is pointless, or that it only has a point if it ends in a conviction. Impeachment is about holding accountable the president, who is largely ensconced in office until his term ends, even if he is not removed. By airing the various abuses and excesses of his administration in a public forum, Democrats would also sully Trump’s chances at the polls come November. Given that Democrats do not have the supermajority in the Senate required to convict, it behooved them to simultaneously pursue charges for most everything else Trump has done.
The decision to restrict articles of impeachment to the Ukraine scandal does not make sense. Withholding military aid from a foreign ally as a means to obtain damaging information about a political opponent might be an abuse of power. And refusing to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry may constitute obstruction of justice (or “Congress,” as the charge is written). But what about every other abuse of power Trump has committed in office? Obviously, abuse of power or obstruction of justice are not peculiar to foreign policy or electoral interference. It is thus unclear why Democrats have chosen to fixate on this abuse of power, or this obstruction of justice, given the myriad other opportunities they have had to charge Trump with more or less the same thing.
Whether Trump committed an abuse of power or obstructed justice also depends on his mental state, and whether he intended to withhold the military aid or refuse to cooperate with the House for the wrong reasons—and not just whether it was beneficial for him to do so. But generally speaking, Democrats have ignored Trump’s motives in the past.
As soon as he took office, Trump signed an executive order barring nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, ostensibly because of terrorism concerns—despite the fact that the Department of Homeland Security admitted that nationals from the designated countries did not pose an increased security risk. What is more, not only had Trump sworn to ban Muslims on the campaign trail, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, boasted on Fox News that Trump had previously asked him how to do it.
Yet Democrats ultimately embraced the rationale given by the Supreme Court that because the ban was imposed pursuant to the president’s broad powers to regulate immigration, nothing was wrong with it—even if the ban was, as a majority of justices implied—a pretext to openly discriminate against Muslims. But fast-forward to 2019, and all of the sudden it matters why Trump withheld the military aid—despite the fact that he also had a pretext for inquiring into Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden and his son’s activities in Ukraine: the United States’ years-long anti-corruption efforts in the region. Like immigration, foreign affairs are within the purview of the executive and is known to withhold military aid. In fact, around the same time military aid to Ukraine was withheld in July, military aid to Lebanon was also withheld—and no reason was ever given. And yet it is Trump’s alleged motives—that it was all a ruse to gain an edge over Biden as he climbed in the polls—that have riled up Democrats at such a late hour in Trump’s presidency.
To give another example, while impeachment proceedings were underway, Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. Not only did he not obtain prior authorization from Congress for what amounted to an extrajudicial killing, but the president has yet to offer a credible justification. All the White House has said is that the strike was in response to an imminent threat that Soleimani posed. But no evidence of an imminent attack on American forces has ever been furnished. It is hard to believe that Trump really intended to defend American forces, rather than divert attention from his own trial at home. Clinton did the same thing, ordering a spasm of violence in Iraq while he was under investigation. But again, because Trump had a pretext and the authority to otherwise carry out the attack, Democrats declined to inquire into his true motives.
Why restrict articles of impeachment to what is largely a political crime that only affects one of their own—Joe Biden—and is a long way from the everyday lives of people of color? By excluding most everything that people of color care about, Democrats confirm that not only does our pain not matter, but the whole affair is really a ruse to save face—because they failed to mount a concerted enough effort against Trump for the past three years.
Remember, Democratic leaders said over and over that impeachment was off the table and would not be pursued as a means to remove the president because it was too fractious and would “divide the country.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi maintained that “this president” was not worth it, even ruling impeachment out in advance of the Mueller report no matter the outcome. The message was clear all along: People of color, who have had to bear the brunt of the abuses and excesses of the Trump administration, are not worth it, but a Democratic politician is.
Democrats have been remarkably cavalier about the disproportionate cost of their intransigence on people of color in the face of the president’s near daily outrages.
So of course it is easy for members of Congress, the vast majority of whom are white men with millions of dollars in global assets, to have insisted that the time was not ripe, or that impeachment would throw the country into disarray, while people of color labored under the conditions imposed on them by Trump.
Not only is it unintelligible why it is this abuse of power, or this obstruction of justice, that has awakened Democrats from their slumber and skepticism of more potent means of “resistance” on a par with removal, but it is disingenuous.
Just look at what then-House Minority Leader Pelosi said in 2006, and then again, in 2007. She balked at attempts to impeach Bush for the invasion of Iraq, going so far as to doubt whether one of the most heinous wars ever waged—which, to date, is estimated to have killed upwards of a million men, women and children, displaced hundreds of thousands more and mired the whole region in death and destruction for years to come, all on the basis of outright lies and the private grievances of the Bush family—even constituted an impeachable offense in the first place, despite the fact that Pelosi knew full well that the rationale that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was made up.
Perhaps given this, it should come as no surprise that Trump taking a leaf out of Bill Clinton’s book and bombing a foreign country amid impeachment proceedings, or announcing that he will yet again expand the Muslim ban to encompass even more countries, seems inconsequential to Democrats in power.
Despite having finally initiated impeachment proceedings against Trump, Democrats have struggled to put their best legal foot forward. From refusing to litigate the very subpoenas that would have provided them with the evidence they seek to refusing to give up Biden’s son in exchange for John Bolton’s key testimony, Democrats have only half-heartedly prosecuted their case. Why else hold off on holding a formal vote in the House, or transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate? To the extent to which it is a strategic decision, or Democrats are wary of their chances, it is because they are fearful of putting Democrats who are up for reelection in key districts at risk, and impairing Biden’s chances at the polls come November—not because they really care about taking Trump to task. It is as if, by restricting the impeachment inquiry to the Ukraine scandal and adopting a cautious or timid approach, Democrats are deliberately sabotaging their own efforts to save themselves from the embarrassment of losing.
Democrats have finally taken the extraordinary step of initiating impeachment proceedings against Trump because it had become politically untenable not to. For the better part of three years, Democrats have consistently failed to mount a rigorous enough defense against Trump, squandered their time with charades like the Russia probe, and acquiesced to or even actively assisted him with his policies. Let’s not forget that the vast majority of Democrats agreed to increase Trump’s military budget by another $20 billion a year and offered to fund his border wall. And despite California Rep. Adam Schiff’s impassioned plea during the prosecution’s opening arguments that “she’s worth it,” the average American is utterly disinterested in the United States’ proxy war with Russia.
Democrats have seemingly purposefully impaired the chances of succeeding at Trump’s trial in the Senate by excluding everything else that the president has done, especially given that removal is highly unlikely. But by restricting the articles of impeachment to the Ukraine scandal, They are sending the clear message that whatever harm Trump has done to the least privileged and most beleaguered of us, it is negligible at best.Print