The angry fights that had been breaking out among Democrats earlier this year about whether they should head down the path that would lead to the impeachment of Donald Trump by the House and then his acquittal by the Senate were finessed for a while by a clever stratagem from House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, as I noted last month:
Those who have carefully followed the slowly developing dance that House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler has been performing over demands for the “launching” of an “impeachment inquiry” or “proceedings” already knew where this was going, but Nadler’s movements are becoming less subtle. His position is now clearly that his committee is already “inquiring” into impeachment, and should it decide to adopt articles of impeachment, you could conclude that the “proceedings” began some time ago …
It also seems pretty obvious that Nadler’s shift toward calling what he’s already been doing “impeachment proceedings” has been quietly approved by his boss, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who until recently was publicly adamant in opposing any step down that path.
But Nadler’s maneuver simply postponed the day of reckoning, and made the new (if much later) flashpoint the actual proposal and passage of articles of impeachment — or a decision not to go there. One adamant journalistic proponent for going the whole hog, Brian Beutler, argues that as the clock continues to tick, Trump’s behavior has gotten far worse:
Bookmark the summer of 2019 in the oppressive calendar of the Trump era as a reference point for understanding the future.
This was when the president waged multiple, days-long, racist and antisemitic tirades against black lawmakers, Muslim lawmakers, and the overwhelming majority of American Jews. It was when the damage Trump has inflicted on the economy started to materialize in government data, and Trump responded by blaming the Chinese government, the media, and his hand-picked Federal Reserve chairman. It was when, his political vulnerabilities exposed, he intensified his most sadistic anti-immigrant policies. It was when multiple Trump-inspired white nationalists slaughtered innocent people in terrorist gun massacres, and several others were arrested before they could visit similar hell on other disfavored communities. It was when Trump pressured Israel to punish two American citizens (both members of Congress) and tried to coerce Ukraine to use its state powers against Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it was when House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler quietly acknowledged he had initiated impeachment proceedings against the president, with the support of more than a majority of House Democrats.
Beutler does not acknowledge, though I am sure he is ruefully aware of it, that Trump’s terrible conduct this summer could actually make impeachment less likely by overshadowing his obstruction of justice during the Mueller investigation — the assumed basis for the charge of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in any impeachment resolution. And in the meantime, even as Nancy Pelosi bought herself more time by going along with Nadler’s claim that “impeachment proceedings” had already begun, her opposition to taking the next, fateful step has probably hardened thanks to the continued opposition of many of her troops, particularly those in marginal districts, as Russell Berman reports:
[A] large gap remains between the 134 House Democrats—plus one independent, the ex-Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan—who support an impeachment inquiry and the 218 votes needed to actually pass articles of impeachment and prompt a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. Dozens more Democrats will have to declare their support to force Pelosi’s hand, and the path to a majority likely runs through purple districts.
When the question was about initiating “proceedings,” Pelosi and Nadler were on the hot seat, because that action was entirely within their control. But Pelosi is now in a position simply to say the votes aren’t there for articles of impeachment. And while a majority of Democratic voters (69 percent in an August 22 Monmouth survey — just 4 percent less than the number favoring the initiation of proceedings) want to go ahead and impeach Trump, 64 percent of independents oppose it, and that’s going to be enough to convince quite a few House Democrats in competitive districts to say no.
Now it remains possible that the Judiciary Committee could come up with fresh material supporting an impeachment effort, which could at least in theory shift public opinion. The New York Times reports one new strand of investigation:
at The House Judiciary Committee ordered homeland security officials on Wednesday to hand over records related to reported offers by President Trump to pardon aides willing to break the law to carry out his immigration policies.
With a subpoena addressed to the department’s acting secretary, Kevin K. McAleenan, House Democrats indicated that they were continuing to expand the scope of their investigation into whether to impeach the president beyond the special counsel’s core findings on Russian election interference and possible presidential obstruction of justice …
“Such a troubling pattern of obstruction of justice would represent a continuation of the misconduct identified in the Mueller report,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement. “The framers did not envision the use of the presidential pardon power to encourage criminal acts at the president’s direction.”
If such an expanded inquiry does not light up the boards in Congress or in the court of public opinion, at some point this autumn Pelosi may quietly pull the plug on any tentative impeachment plans — again, citing an impossible whip count. But if she wants to avoid some serious progressive blowback, she should consider making it clear this does not mean adopting the ignore-Trump-and-just-repeat-Democratic-talking-points point of view. For Beutler, it’s the possibility that a decision not to impeach means a general retreat from any sort of effort to hold Trump and his party accountable that would be a true disaster:
Democrats have been divided for years now between those who want to defeat Trump by confronting all of this madness directly, and those who hope to beat him by ignoring it as much as possible, so the country can write it off as an anomaly driven by Trump’s unique deviance. As of the unofficial end of summer, the conflict-averse faction is in command, but not firmly so. Most Democrats want to impeach Trump but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains opposed to leading an impeachment effort, and emboldened Republicans have noticed the absence of surefooted opposition. The premise of Biden’s presidential campaign is that Trump is an “aberration,” and he continues to lead his rivals in primary polls.
If that’s the bet Democrats ultimately make, it does not mean that they will lose the 2020 election, but it does mean they will be unprepared for it, and what will come afterward. The past few weeks, as much as any period since Trump became president, confirmed the GOP’s complicity in every reprehensible aspect of Trump’s presidency, and those who propose to lay it all on Trump and sweep him down the memory hole are proposing political amnesty for people who sold out the country.
I suspect Beutler speaks for many other progressives in believing that impeachment, for all its futility and general-electorate unpopularity, is a litmus test for whether Democrats are willing to do what’s necessary to root out Trumpism once and for all, and salt the earth with the tears of jailed wrongdoers. If Pelosi intends to turn her back on impeachment, but wants to keep her party united, she might want to show her teeth.