To Impeach or Not to Impeach

The Democratic Party faces a very difficult decision. Some members want to begin impeach proceedings against President Donald Trump. They believe that the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller provides enough evidence that the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors. And they think that the president has demonstrated in many ways that he is unfit for the office.

The Democratic Party leadership, however, remains cautious. Impeachment proceedings begin in the House, but successful impeachment also requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. The Democrats control the House but are in the minority in the Senate. House leader Nancy Pelosi suspects that Trump wants to lure the Democratic Party into initiating impeachment only for the Senate to vote it down. Then the president can falsely claim, as he has done with the Mueller report, that he has been cleared of all crimes.

So, the question of impeachment is, in fact, two questions. The first is whether the president’s actions qualify for his removal from office. The second is political: can the Democrats build enough support to win an impeachment vote.

Mueller concluded in his report that there was insufficient evidence that the Trump team had colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 presidential election. However, he did not come to a definitive conclusion about whether the president subsequently tried to obstruct the inquiry into this question. In his initial summary of the report, Attorney General William Barr tried to interpret Mueller’s report as proof that the administration did not obstruct justice. But that was very clearly incorrect.

The Mueller report in fact identified nearly a dozen possible examples of obstruction, including the president’s efforts to fire Mueller himself, his firing of FBI director James Comey, and his attempt to get White House counsel, Don McGahn, to lie about the president’s approach to the Mueller inquiry.

Instead of issuing a definitive judgement on obstruction, Mueller left it up to Congress to make a determination. However, according to a new book by Michael Wolf, Siege: Trump Under Fire, Mueller actually composed a three-count indictment of Trump for obstructing the investigation, tampering with a witness, and retaliating against a witness.

Arguing that the investigation is now over, the president continues to block further inquiry. So, for instance, Trump has been trying to block McGahn (and others) from testifying before Congress.

There are other grounds for impeaching the president. For instance, the emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution prevents the president from receiving any benefits from foreign governments or individuals. But the Trump organization has clearly benefitted from foreign dignitaries staying at the hotels it runs. There might be additional evidence of corrupt practices in Trump’s financial information. But the president has fought hard to prevent the release of this information.

Part of that financial information comes from Deutsche Bank, the only major financial institution to continue lending to Trump after other banks decided that he was too risky a proposition. Deutsche Bank has also been fined for participation in Russian money-laundering. Trump, too, has had to pay fines for Russian money-laundering. Impeachable offenses might be buried in this financial information.

A federal judge recently ordered Trump to release his financial information. Because the president’s lawyers filed an appeal, for the time being, Trump, his children, and his organization don’t have to give up the financial documents.

So, the answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. There is ample justification for an impeachment investigation, based either on obstruction or potential financial impropriety.

The second question, about the political support necessary to win an impeachment vote, is more difficult. So far, only one sitting Republican member of Congress has come out in favor of impeachment: Justin Amash of Michigan. No other Republicans have followed suit. Right now, the Republican Party is Trump’s party. It supports his policies, his lies, and his reelection. Although Trump’s approval rating in the country as a whole is dismal, he continues to attract 90 percent approval within his own party.

That could change. Even more obvious examples of the president’s misconduct could come to light. The U.S. economy could start to sink. Trump’s chances of reelection could plummet.

But there’s another possibility. A popular movement to remove the president from office could catch fire. U.S. citizens, in other words, could draw inspiration from South Korea’s candlelight movement to impeach Park Geun-Hye.

A new organization, By the People, wants to do just that: create a mass movement in the United States in favor of impeachment. It has issued a call for the creation of groups around the country committed to increasing pressure on Congress to launch impeachment proceedings. Like the candlelight movement, it hopes to bring millions of people onto the street to demand the removal of Trump.

Impeachment could backfire. For instance, it could strengthen the determination of Trump’s base to rally in support of the president. Even if impeachment were successful, Trump would simply be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence, who is less prone to gaffes and incendiary rhetoric but supports policies just as malign as Trump’s. And Pence might have an easier chance of reelection than Trump.

In the end, you can impeach a president. But you can’t impeach a president’s supporters. Any effort to impeach Donald Trump must take into consideration Donald Trump’s core group of voters.

Ultimately, the task of the anti-Trump movement is to make his policies of intolerance, corruption, and greed less and less acceptable in the public realm. That might mean impeaching the president. That certainly means preventing his reelection. But it also means working hard, in a non-partisan way, to delegitimize what Donald Trump has stood for over the years. That requires a shift not only American politics but in American culture.

Hankyoreh, June 4, 2019


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