Everyone who’s not duty-bound to pretend not to know what happened this morning knows what happened this morning. Robert Mueller, in his final official act as a federal prosecutor, announced that, because Justice Department policy forbade him to accuse the president of being a crook, and because he could not say that the president was not a crook, someone else would need to follow some other procedure to decide whether or not the president is a crook, and if so, what to do about the president being a crook.
The president is, of course, a crook. The Speaker of the House declined, once again, to take up Mueller’s implicit invitation to do something about it. The Speaker is still waiting, either for impeachment to somehow ripen further on its own, without the people in charge of impeachment doing anything about it, or for the 2020 election.
There is—still!—a school of thought that says Nancy Pelosi, whose record till now is unquestionably that of a tough and canny politician, has a real plan, and that she is patiently holding out for the right moment to act against Donald Trump. What that right moment may be is a mystery. It’s not the special counsel delivering his report and then declaring his share of the work to be completely finished, because that just happened. It’s not a Republican member of the House breaking ranks and announcing that his colleagues have a duty to impeach Trump, because that already happened, too.
The country is in a legal, political, and constitutional crisis that has never happened before.
But the truth is, even if Pelosi has a theory about what she’s doing, she doesn’t know what she is doing. No one knows what they are doing. No one knows what’s going to happen next, or which results will definitely follow from which actions. The country is in a legal, political, and constitutional crisis that has never happened before, and anyone who tells you they know how it’s going to play out is a fraud or a fool.
The special prosecutor has methodically described the president’s efforts to obstruct justice. The Attorney General has lied about the Justice Department’s own findings, is launching a counter-investigation into the people who investigated the president, and has openly defended Trump as if the president is his personal client. The administration is refusing to honor Congressional subpoenas and breaking the law about providing Congress with the president’s tax returns. Too many Cabinet members are caught up in their own corruption scandals to keep track of.
American politics and American political journalism both operate—wrongly and now maybe disastrously—on the premise that everything wants to remain in equilibrium. Things swing one way, then the other, as the parties’ competing and incomplete visions of the will of the people balance themselves out. But Trump has never had majority support, and isn’t trying to get it. The ruling majority in the Senate isn’t backed by a majority of voters either, and doesn’t pretend to pursue more than its minority interest.
Democratic leadership seems bent on working around this—as if the solution to entrenched minority rule is simply to try to gather an even bigger majority, but to do it without antagonizing the minority. Impeachment, in this view, would simply rouse the president’s supporters, especially after the Senate, under Mitch McConnell’s withered and unbending hand, refuses to convict.
And it might, theoretically. But so might non-impeachment. Either strategy, in turn, might rouse or depress the majority that is against the president. Either one could cause the press to rise to the scent of blood, or to sink back and defer judgment, treating the whole debacle as a campaign issue and presuming the voters will decide.
We have never seen what happens when a president refuses to back down.
No static solution can resolve a dynamic crisis. An unstable president and a destabilized administration are not going to pull themselves together and wait for the final judgment to be rendered at the polls. The president will keep on pushing his luck and pushing the limits, whether the opposition tries to push back or not. We have never seen what happens when a president refuses to back down. There are no useful precedents for this situation, and no pragmatic rules about the safest way to play it.
It’s true, and important to remember, that individual pieces of the Trump situation have happened before. The George W. Bush administration’s effort to bring about the invasion of Iraq was as thorough a set of lies as anything Trump has said, and the death toll from it was considerably higher; Iran-Contra was an unambiguous conspiracy with foreign powers to flagrantly break the law; Ronald Reagan occupied the office in a state of mental decline that left him unable to separate fact from fiction; John F. Kennedy appointed his own brother as Attorney General; Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was a more blatant and destructive abuse of presidential power than any of the obstructions Trump has come up with so far.
But false cynicism is just another form of false innocence now. No other president has ever combined this full suite of features—endless partisan antagonism, an anti-majoritarian base, mental decline, functional incompetence, financial corruption, personal corruption, misuse of authority, nepotism, constant lying—with the powers of the modern imperial presidency, a disciplined and purely factional party, and committed mass-media propaganda operations to back them up. Even Nixon tried to do his scheming behind closed doors, with a sense that the system would turn against him if it witnessed his worst. Trump assumes his own impunity, and defies the system to do anything about it.
And the system, as written and ratified, says that the thing to do is impeachment. This is why impeachment exists. If you believe impeachment can’t work, why would you believe anything else could?