Jurisprudence

Democratic Reluctance to Even Utter “Impeachment” Is Becoming Untenable

Pelosi speaking at a podium.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a weekly news conference on May 16 in Washington.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

There is perhaps no better encapsulation of the difference between the two modern American political parties than this one: Republicans start from the presumption that “treason” and “spying” will be prosecuted without actual evidence, while Democrats start from the presumption that only once they have seen all the evidence of everything ever, they might conclude that some further investigation is warranted. Donald Trump leads deranged stadium rallies in chanting “lock them up” without ever specifying who committed what alleged crime. Democrats, faced with a case of what would be felony obstruction of justice but for a legal guidance against prosecuting a sitting president, insist that they cannot initiate impeachment proceedings because they need to gather more information. Republicans standing two inches away from a Seurat painting see a still life in crimes committed, while Democrats standing six feet back are certain that just one more blue dot would help them see the whole picture.

This is not a new problem. Those of us who feared that the Mueller report would never be the smoking gun Democrats were dreaming of warned that limiting the reach of the aperture to criminal obstruction and illegal “collusion” by necessity blocked out a massive range of criminal and impeachable conduct by the president and his confederates. Last week Walter Dellinger made the same observation about the Democrats’ strange myopia around the new holy grail—an unredacted Mueller report. As the former solicitor general put it:

Mueller’s extraordinary 2,800-subpoena, 500-search-warrant, two-year investigation fully established not merely crimes but also the betrayal of the president’s office: a failure to defend the country’s electoral system from foreign attack and acts of interference with justice that shred the rule of law. Congress doesn’t need to read more to announce what is obvious from what it should have read already.

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though, individual political calculus continues to take precedence over the rule of law. That position is becoming more and more untenable, as cracks appear in the Democratic front and even a Republican member of Congress is able to point out what is right in front of us all. “Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment,” GOP Rep. Justin Amash said over the weekend. Amash understands what is obvious to anyone who read the Mueller report in good faith: We have more than enough data to name and investigate the crime. Amash has been joined by a fistful of renegade Democrats who are finally content to say “we know enough.” If not enough to impeach, then at least enough to initiate an inquiry.

The problem with Democratic pointillism is that if congressional Democrats truly refuse to see the big picture, after the staggering proof put forth in the Mueller report, the daily reports of gross financial misconduct and corruption, and the administration’s growing refusal to accede to any form of congressional oversight, one has to wonder which hypothetical red dot or yellow smear might persuade them that, um, crimes. Perhaps some belief in Trump’s infamous boast that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot a man without losing support has spooked Democrats to the point of paralysis. The reality is that Democrats on the Hill know what criminal obstruction looks like—they are just too terrified to say so.

The other problem with Democratic pointillism is that House Democrats want to look like measured and rational adults in the face of the biggest toddler tantrum ever witnessed in presidential history, one in which the Constitution is being repurposed as a diaper. But as any parent or even uncertified Red Cross babysitter will tell you, every time you decline to impose consequences, you move the line for acceptable behavior a little further. Mueller is himself trying to look measured and rational by demurring from testifying. Looking adult and rational in the face of abject insanity is not always synonymous with bravery, especially when the other side is shouting TREASON and LOCK THEM UP and INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS.

Democrats who say they want to focus on the economy, or the 2020 elections, or other kitchen table issues, give up more and more authority to the reckless, power-snatching president by the day. By attaching no real consequence, they are essentially telling the country that Steven Mnuchin should keep defying a House subpoena of the president’s tax records and Donald McGahn should keep refusing to testify on obstruction of justice. In ceding that power to a president who believes himself all-powerful, they are simply making it so.

“But wait!” Democratic leadership might say, taking yet another step closer to the painting. “You’re missing the point.” What’s the downside of these drawn-out court fights brought on by what is itself impeachable conduct? (See: Article III of the Nixon impeachment articles.) The downside is the appearance that there is virtually nothing this president could do to trigger an impeachment proceeding, something Trump sees, relishes, and will bank on in whatever he does next.

Democrats in leadership pretend at conviction and lack courage. The president is lawless and corrupt and surrounding himself with the machinery of lawlessness and corruption. These same Democrats are waiting for the full picture staring them right in the face to emerge. Every step they take closer allows them to miss the big picture, distort the narrative, and chase an ever more elusive final dot. If the public isn’t with them yet, it’s because the public doesn’t have all day to spend in a museum and needs to have the picture presented to them where they live. Congressional Democrats have to repaint the picture that is already directly before them. This shouldn’t be complicated. It’s proving beyond their competence.