On the evening of Friday, September 13, House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff issued a terse, inscrutable statement that a whistle-blower within the intelligence community had identified an abuse of some kind yet had been prevented from transmitting the complaint to Congress. Eleven days later, the House of Representatives has decided to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
It is odd, in a way, that this issue turned out to be the one that finally prodded Congress to act. But it is also clear that impeachment is the culminating response to Trump’s relentless authoritarian impulses. His nakedly corrupt use of his office to extort a foreign country to attack his political opponent is a synecdoche for his refusal to respect any distinction between his own property and the government he is supposed to serve.
It cannot be said that Democrats are doing this for political gain. Polls have consistently shown impeachment to be a losing proposition, and the House Democrats from moderate and conservative districts are taking their political lives into their hands. Yet there is reason to believe the politics may change. In contrast to the sprawling Russia investigation, a less-is-more case is narrowly drawn around Trump’s public campaign to pressure Ukraine, which his personal attorney has been boasting about publicly for months.
More surprising, Democrats enjoy at least a modicum of bipartisan support. The narrow and immediate objective of their impeachment inquiry is to force Trump to relinquish the whistle-blower report he has quashed. Trump tried to evade that request by promising to release the transcript of his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky without giving up the other elements of the complaint. (News reports have described the whistle-blower as comprising multiple sources.) But Trump’s own party has undercut this gambit. The Senate unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the entire whistle-blower report, not just the phone call, and the Senate Intelligence Committee is holding a bipartisan interview with the whistle-blower.
The prospect that Republicans will continue to pursue the inquiry — let alone eventually vote to remove Trump from office — are remote. But the mere fact of their cooperation bodes well for its political fate. It was McConnell who once frankly explained his calculation that loud and total partisanship signaled an illegitimate process to the public, while bipartisan support would make people believe “differences have been worked out and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.” The core Democratic procedural demand has crucially gained the broadest possible bipartisan legitimacy.
The context in which impeachment arrives is Trump’s refusal to accept either norms or laws that constrain his power. All presidents push back on opposing-party oversight, but Trump’s negation of Congress’s co-equal role is extraordinary. He has refused black-letter demands to release the financial information every president has published, even as he runs a global business empire that makes that information uniquely compelling to the public. He has insisted that Congress has no right to investigate him at all and that he is completely immune from criminal investigation.
His extortion of Ukraine’s government is perfectly in keeping with his stated belief that the powers of government can and should be put at the president’s personal disposal. He has used his powers to attack critics in the bureaucracy, ginning up weak or spurious investigations of Department of Justice figures who investigated him to punish independent news-media owners and profit from office.
In her brief statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quoted Trump’s remark “I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” That conviction has inspired Trump’s entire presidency. It must be met with political action.
The election next year remains the main field in which Trump will be contested. His Ukraine scandal has prompted impeachment in part because it revealed Trump’s determination to use his power to manipulate the next election by inducing other countries to help him rough up his opponent, just as Russia had done — on his behalf and with his assent — in the previous one. To impeach Trump is a gamble. So too is it a gamble to allow Trump another year to indulge his lifelong impulse to cheat his way into power.