People who consider themselves political realists, in 2019 in America, are mostly distinguished by their unlimited capacity for fantasy. To wrap up the week in which it became clear that the attorney general had deceived the public about the results of Robert Mueller’s investigation, for the sake of obstructing any inquiry into the president’s obstruction of justice, the longtime national politics reporter and commenter Karen Tumulty wrote a Washington Post column offering her verdict on the latest turn of events:
President Trump should not be impeached. It would be a terrible thing for the country.
“This is not because he doesn’t deserve it,” Tumulty added, immediately but with double-negative padding to protect her from the sharp edges of saying that the president deserves to be impeached.
She went on to explain the particulars of the situation, as she saw them: Donald Trump’s White House runs on a “culture of recklessness and deceit” and “malfeasance”; Robert Mueller chose not to indict the president because of the Justice Department’s stance on indicting sitting presidents, not because of the evidence; Mueller presented Congress with an “invitation to—and roadmap for—impeachment”; the president has responded to being investigated by becoming “more erratic and reckless” and “pushing legal boundaries”; though Mueller described Trump’s staff refusing to carry out the worst of his orders, the president has “fewer and fewer of those non-sycophants around him”; Congress “has a constitutional duty to provide oversight of the executive.”
Clearly, inexorably, this added up to the case for…keeping the president in office. Donald Trump is corrupt and unstable, yes, and the prosecutor who investigated him sought to refer his behavior to Congress, which is the body constitutionally required and empowered to enforce limits on the presidency, but a seasoned, judicious political observer like Tumulty couldn’t be bound by causes and effects, let alone laws and procedures.
The people who want to impeach the president for committing impeachable offenses, Tumulty explained, need to consider the bigger picture:
Even a successful impeachment by the House would come screeching to a halt in the Republican-controlled Senate, where chances of the constitutionally mandated two-thirds vote it would take to convict are virtually zero. The only thing the exercise would accomplish is further inflaming both the president’s political base and the opposition.
What’s more, the process would probably take a year or more, during which the country would become not only more deeply divided, but thoroughly preoccupied, as anyone who was sentient during the 1998-99 impeachment saga of President Bill Clinton will recall.
Better, at what Tumulty called “this particularly tender moment in our history,” not to struggle at all.
Tumulty was following the standard anti-impeachment line, which says that if the Senate refuses, for purely partisan reasons, to remove a corrupt president, it would be a national crisis, but if everyone simply presumes that the Senate would use that partisan power, and yields to it in advance by not even trying to remove the corrupt president, the crisis will not exist. Impeachment would inflame the president’s political base—and the opposition. It would set off a bitter struggle about legitimate governance. Better, at what Tumulty called “this particularly tender moment in our history,” not to struggle at all.
Neither external facts nor internal logic supported the argument. If Congress waits till the 2020 campaign season, Tumulty wrote, “voters will be given their opportunity to say directly whether they believe Trump is fit to occupy the Oval Office.” The very next thing she wrote was her description of the current Democratic presidential campaign trail:
I have been struck by how infrequently the subject of the Mueller investigation has come up. The crowds are large and enthusiastic, eager for the contest to get underway, but seem far more interested in hearing about issues such as health care, jobs and the environment, which have a more direct impact on their own lives.
This is the debate that needs to happen—and that would be smothered if the election becomes a referendum on impeachment.
The question of removing Trump should be left to the voters, but also the voters should be allowed to vote on the issues, rather than being forced into a referendum on removing Trump. Definitionally, there is no course of action that could possibly meet these requirements, and so Tumulty fixed her mind on something else, a very special course of inaction:
Either house, could, with a majority vote, formally censure Trump, something that has not happened to any chief executive since the Senate censured Andrew Jackson in 1834.
While this would be dismissed in some quarters as merely a symbolic act, it would be a historic rebuke of the Trump presidency — and would, properly, leave it to the voters to decide whether they have had enough of it.
Note that the poor voters, here, had been whipsawed back to being in charge of deciding whether to get rid of Trump, in opposition to the position that Tumulty had staked out in opposition to the original position Tumulty had staked out. If only the voters had some sort of representatives to take responsibility for these vexing issues!
If only the voters had some sort of representatives to take responsibility for these vexing issues!
Instead, Tumulty imagined nobody taking responsibility at all. In place of constitutional remedies, the devoted mainstream pundit was proposing an extraconstitutional non-remedy, a vote to disapprove of how Donald Trump uses his power that would not take any power away from Donald Trump. Maybe Mitt Romney would vote for it, before he goes back to voting in favor of everything Trump wants to do?
Except that, in all likelihood, Romney wouldn’t dare. The most sad and futile part of this fantasy scenario—a historic rebuke of Donald Trump, whose love of history is rivaled only by his capacity for shame—is the belief that it would soothe or settle anything. The presidency that runs on rage and persecution wouldn’t be mollified by this display supposed responsibility; it would be enraged by the censure vote and emboldened by the lack of real impeachment. The base would take offense. The president would fly into a fury and start looking for more people to hurt. The reckless, naive position is the belief, against three years of evidence, that the reckoning is somewhere off in the future, and there’s still some way to dodge it.