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The Only Way Out Is Through

The Democrats cannot unilaterally surrender on impeachment investigations, argues Brennan Center Fellow Andrew Cohen.

April 23, 2019

The Democrats’ hand-wringing this past week over what to do about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on President Donald Trump’s obstruction of justice would almost be quaint if it weren’t already overtaken by events. Even in the face of the blatant corruption and deception at the heart of this administration, even with what Mueller told us last week in pages of grim detail, it always should be a grave matter for the House of Representatives to launch an impeachment investigation or to subpoena documents a reluctant White House or Justice Department or treasury secretary doesn’t want to give up.  

But the president and his congressional allies have given the Democrats a materially easier choice by showing the nation how Republicans plan to respond to the devastating details in Muller’s work. Except for a few lonely voices of disgust, which were quickly drowned out by Trump and his toadies, the Republicans have made it perfectly clear they’ll now go after the investigators, including the FBI, for having the temerity to look into the Trump team’s Russian ties. Rather than being chagrined or embarrassed by what Mueller found, they now say it’s fine for political campaigns to use hacked information given to them by foreign agents.

The Democrats cannot just “move on,” as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the great constitutionalist, put it Sunday on “Face the Nation.” The nation cannot move on because this president and the people who enable him are telling us, promising us, that they’ll continue to engage in the unethical, immoral, and arguably illegal behavior Mueller and the rest of us just caught them doing. Only this time, with more Trump loyalists in place at the White House and Justice Department, and more Trump judges on the federal bench, they’ll be able to be more discreet in covering it all up than they were in 2016 and 2017.

In these circumstances, Congressional Democrats must investigate the impeachment case Mueller has handed to them because if they don’t, they’ll be voluntarily folding a hand that is stronger than the one Trump is playing. Trump was historically unpopular before last week and the publication of the Mueller report seems to have tumbled his favorable ratings even further. This is not the dynamic at work during the Clinton impeachment. We used to think that Republicans were hurt politically by chasing Clinton the way they did two decades ago. Now there is reason to think that conventional wisdom is wrong.

So what do the Democrats have to lose if they hold hearings to put public voices and faces to Mueller’s dry prose? As Brian Beutler and others have pointed out, the Republicans in the midst of their “no collusion” fantasy aren’t going to pivot to fix healthcare or suddenly come up with a compromise over immigration. They aren’t going to pass new campaign finance laws or firm up federal criminal statutes to make it harder for their president’s agents to make nice with the Russians or any other authoritarian regimes. They are going to do all they can do to cling to power, even if it means pretending the FBI is the real problem here.

The Democrats now pondering impeachment proceedings cannot point to a single White House statement since the redacted report was made public and say: “See? The administration has learned its lesson.” On the contrary, Trump has shown no sense of contrition for all of his lies and machinations and we should not expect any. It’s not his style. There was and will be no formal presidential apology. There will be no heartfelt speech from the Oval Office promising to do better or even something a little milder but no less soothing than the way President Reagan did it a generation ago when the Iran-Contra scandal blew up in his face.

Nor have there been any apologies of expressions of regret from White House staffers also shown to have lied, repeatedly, to the American people. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary,  couldn’t bring herself to say she was sorry for lying to reporters, probably because she and they all know she is going to continue to do. Kellyanne Conway? She called on the media and Democrats to apologize to Trump. No one, as far as anyone knows, has been fired for what Mueller’s found, no one held publicly accountable, largely because most of those actors already resigned or were fired from this White House.

This team is going to continue to act this way until they are forced legally and politically to back down. But we can’t wait for the courts to sort it out, especially with the Supreme Court at its most conservative point in nearly a century. And it’s no answer to say that the presidential election of 2020 is the fairest way to resolve this problem. There are 640 days left of the Trump presidency (even if he is not re-elected next November) and each day without a reckoning for what Trump has done is an insult to the Constitution as we have known it. If the Democrats don’t at least hold impeachment hearings, they’ll be derelict in their duty.

One of the least forgivable things President Barack Obama did during his White House tenure was his decision to “look forward,” not backward, when he had the opportunity to hold accountable those responsible for the Bush administration’s torture tactics in the war on terror. Obama’s choice to live and let live for the sake of political comity with Republicans is why we have a torture apologist today at the CIA. Congressional Democrats would be making the same mistake now if they don’t do everything in their power to hold Trump and his fellow obstructionists accountable for the way they’ve degraded the White House and the rule of law.

The Mueller report, in other words, cannot be considered the end, as Republicans hope it will be, because we still may see more indictments. It should be seen instead as a segue to the legislature’s prime role in this constitutional drama. The special counsel has to testify in public on television to answer questions left behind by his work product. So, too, does Attorney General William Barr, outed last week as just another partisan hack more worried about pleasing his boss, the president, than with executing his constitutional duties as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. So, too, must former White House counsel Don McGahn.

The Democrats cannot walk away from this fight now because capitulation won’t end the fight. Trump is telling us, loudly and proudly through one tweet after another, that he’s not going to change a thing about the way he does business despite what Mueller found. Already his man at the Justice Department, William Barr, is enabling conspiracy theories about “spying” on the Trump campaign in 2016. Already his defrocked mouthpiece Rudy Giuliani is signaling there will be more shady contacts with the Russians and other foreign powers able and willing to spy on Democrats.

In the end, this is the story of a group of suspects who, having avoided an initial indictment without being exonerated, are running around town deriding the police and prosecutors and promising to commit more crimes because they are convinced they are above the law. In the real world, folks like this ultimately get what’s coming to them. In this world, the world where the president lies and his party covers up for him, that’s called impeachment. Or so the Constitution says, anyway. House Democrats have to do the right thing here. The right thing is to hold impeachment hearings. And they can do that and run the House at the same time.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Adam Bettcher/Getty)