“Principled” is a strange word to see from Fred Hiatt, the editor of the Washington Post‘s opinion section, which employs the George W. Bush flunky and torture enthusiast Marc Thiessen as a regular columnist and which reliably runs pieces like “Obama and Biden can’t take credit for the soaring Trump economy” by failed Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder or “We need action on infrastructure, not more talk,” jointly bylined by the heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO.
Yet Sunday evening, the curator of bad-faith establishment talking points offered his own “principled case against a rush to impeach.” It was not, in fact, a principled case. It was also sneakily written, since it was not really against “a rush to impeach”—surely an editor of argument would recognize that calling it “a rush” stacked the question?—but against impeachment at all.
It was, instead, a sort of synthesis of the timid Democratic establishment’s belief that Trump shouldn’t be impeached because they’d rather stall till 2020, when he might lose to Joe Biden, and Trump’s own belief that he can’t be impeached because he won in 2016. Both parts of this—the self-interested arguments of competing ruling elites—were presented by Hiatt as expressions of the will of the people.
Yes, Hiatt wrote, Trump shouldn’t be president; the Post editorial board had called him “uniquely unqualified,” and said his “presidency would be dangerous for the nation and the world.” But he won, and the Trump presidency is a fact, and nothing is more sacred in Fred Hiatt’s realm of opinion than currently existing arrangements of power:
I think we’ve been proved right. But that is precisely the point: We thought his unfitness was evident before he was elected, and Americans chose him anyway. (No, he didn’t win the popular vote. But he won.) He is endangering the future of the planet — but we knew he was a climate denier. He ripped children from their parents at the border — but his racism and anti-immigrant animus, like his contempt for the Constitution, were no secrets.
To impeach him now for what the electorate welcomed or was willing to overlook isn’t the democratic response. The right response is to defeat him in 2020.
This was wrong, but it was wrong in a revealing way. It affirmed once more, from deep inside the mainstream Washington consensus, that the people who set the terms of political discussion do not believe that politicians should be responsible for governing the country. The Constitution makes it clear that dealing with a corrupt and unfit president is Congress’ job, but that would mean, in theory, that the legitimacy of the government is constantly subject to review, which would mean questioning the arrangement and uses of power, which would make it harder to justify employing people who supported the Iraq invasion and our national torture program. So it’s better to just condense all questions of accountability into a popular referendum (or not popular referendum, since, as Hiatt noted, the popular vote doesn’t decide the question) every four years.
This model, even more tellingly, depends on a static vision of political power. To say that the question of Trump was resolved in 2016 is to say that the problem of the Trump presidency is a problem of his image, not his actions. It’s not even true that voters had a complete account of Trump’s image in 2016; for example, it wasn’t until well after the election that the general sense his family financials weren’t on the up-and-up gave way to the comprehensive New York Times report about how the Trump fortune was built on outright tax fraud, and his sister quit her federal judgeship.
But even granting, incorrectly, that “we knew what he was,” as Hiatt put it, and that we (or some of us) priced that knowledge into our nation’s electoral decision, there are still all the things Trump has done in office to deal with. Hiatt tried to wave them away as mere extensions of his known character defects. Kidnapping children at the border and throwing them into prison camps was not “his racism and anti-immigrant animus,” but a specific program put into motion by the executive branch, at his direction as chief executive. The emoluments clause, and the presidential program of funneling taxpayer dollars and foreign-government spending to Trump Organization properties, went unmentioned.
Presumably, Hiatt was avoiding those questions so as not to weaken his own case. But the result was a self-defeating logical circularity. If everyone already knew the worst facts about Trump in 2016, and if none of the things he’s done as president can be held against him, then what reason, in principle, would there be for the 2020 vote to come out against him?