The Consequence of No Consequences

House Democrats’ refusal to take action against Donald Trump has one result: It helps him.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sept. 9 in Washington.
Rep. Veronica Escobar, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sept. 9 in Washington. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

It is axiomatic, in parenting small children, that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When our children misbehave, we exert our power to check them not merely because they did something wrong already, but to deter them from doing wrong again. If past is indeed prologue, punishment is also necessary for deterrence.

This is a lesson that some of the Democratic leadership in the House seem to have failed to apprehend. Because they do not seem to realize the cost of the choice to do nothing, less-than-nothing, or worse-than-nothing in response to Donald Trump’s acts of corruption and criminality: It’s not just that his past bad acts go unpunished, but that future bad acts are expressly encouraged.

Democrats have somehow taken the position that the president’s past bad acts are forever behind us. There’s a long history of this kind of wishful thinking—President Barack Obama’s decision to ignore unrefuted evidence that the George W. Bush White House had condoned and concealed a brutal torture program for foreign prisoners is a perfect example of what happens when we decide that it’s too “polarizing” or “controversial” to demand consequences for past crimes. Having witnessed what appear to be criminal campaign finance violations, criminal acts of obstruction of justice, and what might now be emerging as criminal acts of bribery and possible treason, including acts that violate the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made the calculation that everything that has already happened to America is not necessarily worthy of response, evidently on the theory that it endangers the chances of a continued Democratic House majority in 2020.

Pelosi does want us to know, however, as she noted on Sunday, that if the whistleblower’s complaint is kept back from Congress, the Trump administration “will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.” It’s always, always the next thing. And the next thing never comes.

This kick-the-can-down-the-road play may or may not be a wise tactical move. I am not a tactician. But it borders on insanity not to realize that ignoring all of the president’s past bad acts encourages and indeed rewards even worse new ones. Each time Trump sees Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership blink in the face of a challenge, he redoubles his illegal behaviors. House Democrats are, in their acquiescence, in fact training him to go ever further the next time. There are good moral and strategic arguments for the House to do the one thing it is empowered to do in the face of repeated criminality and misconduct and incompetence of this president. But mine is an argument more deeply rooted in the general laws of physics: To do nothing in the face of repeated lawlessness is to court yet more lawlessness in the future.
The net outcome of doing nothing is not politically or morally neutral. The net outcome is future loss after future loss.

This is the argument Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deployed this past weekend, when they placed the blame on Democrats for refusing to rein Trump in, after reports emerged that he was withholding promised aid to Ukraine until the country produced dirt on a political rival. Warren put it this way in a tweet: “After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president.” AOC’s formulation was similar: “The integrity of our democracy isn’t threatened when a president breaks the law. It’s threatened when we do nothing about it.”

It defies logic for House Democrats to insist that their sole hope for salvation will be found in the 2020 election, when the 2020 election is subject to the same acts of foreign interference that poisoned 2016; when indeed they are failing to respond to the admitted acts of interference that happen before their eyes. By refusing to hold the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responsible for any of that interference—indeed by pretending it was very, very bad but let’s look forward and not backward, House leadership is inviting even more abuse. And in the face of it, Democrats continue to insist that the long game is what matters, even as the short game is making the long game increasingly unwinnable.

When Corey Lewandowski puts on a clinic about contempt of Congress and nothing is done by the only body capable of doing something, that sends a powerful signal that all such future contempt will be welcome and effective. And when Robert Mueller says plainly and unequivocally that the next election is already in the process of being stolen, and nobody acts to secure it, that sends a powerful signal that all such interference is welcome and effective. To be sure, Democrats have very limited power at present and nobody doubts that the Senate will cower, whatever the results of an impeachment probe may be, and fail to convict. But by sitting on that limited power, fretting about how sad and mad they are, House Democrats are in point of fact giving over those limited powers to the other side.

By seemingly forgiving and forgetting the past, House Democrats are implying that they’ll also forfeit their chance at oversight in the future. In failing to say that the last worst thing was the impassable red line, they imply time and again that they are waiting for the next worst thing, which may really be the red line. But the implication that everyone’s waiting for the “big one” ignores the fact that the big one happened when this president endangered spies in a casual conversation in the Oval Office, when he took Vladimir Putin’s side over his own security advisers in Helsinki, when he tried to have Jeff Sessions fired, and when he conditioned foreign aid on helping to bury a political adversary.

When House Democrats insist that the public isn’t sold on impeachment yet, it’s another failure of parenting 101: They have trained the public into believing that nothing that has happened warrants action. If the American public is befuddled, it’s because a House majority failed to utilize the only power in its arsenal: that of sober and sustained investigation and public education. Like congressional Democrats, the American public ends up on the lookout for the next big crime, instead of the pileup of what’s come before.

The cliché that we are always fighting the last war is incorrect in this instance; House Democrats are instead forever holding their powder as they gnash their teeth and gird themselves to fight the imaginary next battle. In the meantime, they give away everything to an administration that will only go further. The aggregate result is not stasis or equipoise. The result is that the House Dems’ moral authority, political messaging, and actual oversight power is already slowly draining away day by day. Democrats, in attempting to marshal their strength for coming battles, grow weaker every day as the outrages become forever more appalling.