Are We on the Verge of a Constitutional Crisis?

Your move. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ben: The White House sent a letter that our colleague Jon Chait accurately described as “deranged” the other day, in which it made clear, in Trump-campaign-rally language, that it would not be cooperating with any piece of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. The words “constitutional crisis” are on a lot of people’s lips. Are we there yet?

Ed: Not just yet, but we could be near.

Margaret: I think it depends on what the Democrats do to counter that move.

Ed: Today it was reported that Trump left a door open to cooperation if Democrats held a formal vote to authorize impeachment proceedings (which they really don’t have to do) that included rules “he considered fair.” The odds that this is a sincere offer are low. But Democrats may need to call his bluff.

Margaret: Should it be a constitutional crisis? Sure. He’s not allowed to just defy Congress, but we never move to the crisis part if Democrats just shrug it off.

Ben: I’m confused as to what their next move would be if they did decide to shrug it off.

Ed: They can continue to investigate Trump without his or his administration’s cooperation. Or they could just say, “We’ve got enough,” and put together articles of impeachment, perhaps adding to them his obstruction of impeachment itself.

I know Jon thinks Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” with respect to Ukraine were publicly admitted by Trump and Rudy Giuliani. Why investigate crimes you have on videotape? The decision on how to proceed may also depend on whether House Democrats choose broader articles of impeachment. If so, that could take some time to put together.

Ben: If they do decide to call the White House’s bluff, what would that look like, exactly? Chaos in the streets?

Margaret: Throwing Rudy in jail for contempt? I do think that while Congress is within its rights if it starts having more serious consequences for contempt it might freak people out. They’re used to seeing Congress say, “Wow, I wish you wouldn’t do that,” rather than exerting its full constitutional powers. I think this is a decades-old problem for Congress, but the reality is now they have to consider if more aggressive moves will backfire.

Ed: All I meant by “calling their bluff” is holding a vote to authorize impeachment.

Margaret: That’s less fun than arresting people.

Ed: You want to see Rudy do a perp walk, doncha, Margaret?

Margaret: Yeah, nobody’s going to face serious consequences, so you have to enjoy these moments while you can. Michael Cohen’s testimony moved pretty fast. Glad I stopped to look around so I didn’t miss it. Anyway, I suppose the less risky move for Dems, weirdly, is to counter Trump’s obstruction by moving right on to articles of impeachment? But then does the whole thing just fizzle out a day later when McConnell holds a fake trial?

Ed: Maybe. But let’s face it: Barring something unexpected, the whole thing is going to fizzle out eventually when McConnell holds a fake trial. Which gets back to the fundamental reality that politics, not the substance, is driving this process. And I’d guess that’s what Pelosi is game-planning right now. What damages Trump the most heading into an election which is, after all, the most likely method for getting rid of him?

Ben: So what do you think is the answer to that question? What is the most politically damaging route here?

Margaret: For whom?

Ben: El Trumpo, as my friend likes to call him.

Margaret: Haha. I don’t think they should wrap it up anytime soon even if Trump people are stonewalling. I think the drips of news are freaking Trump admin figures out and more will come forward.

Ed: I think the House should go through the motions of trying to secure cooperation, take its time to put together the tightest and most coherent case for impeachment they have, and then move ahead. I doubt it’s going to happen like this weekend. Even in the Clinton case, where Starr did all the investigating before the House did a thing, and the articles of impeachment were like two sentences, it took close to three months. Just in the House.

Margaret: Yeah, once the House votes it’ll be over pretty quickly. Drag it out at least a few months, see what comes up, what case you can make, agitate Trump even more. Nothing in recent polling is discouraging Democrats from proceeding.

Ed: There is this theory that McConnell will find some way to make the Senate trial all about the various right-wing conspiracy theories they’ve promoted about Obama, Clinton, Biden, the FBI, the deep state, etc.

Margaret: I don’t think that would work actually. I know it would get coverage on the right, but mainstream journalists are going to go deep covering all the details of Benghazi probe 15 or whatever?

Ed: It’s more Mitch’s style to just hold a quick “trial,” pronounce Trump “exonerated,” and bask in the radioactive glow of his own power.

Ben: Haha.

Ed: Hey, you gotta be inventive to capture the banal nature of McConnell’s evil. He’s the banker foreclosing your house minutes before the roof collapses on you. Unlike El Trumpo, who is the roof collapsing on you.

Ben: Going back to what Margaret inferred from the polling — before this Ukraine scandal, one of Pelosi’s central reasons for not going ahead with impeachment was that it would be a distraction from the 2020 election campaign, where Democrats are quite well-positioned to take out Trump. Now that the proceedings have majority support, has the argument that it would hurt them electorally been neutered?

Margaret: Somewhat, but I think it depends on how things play out. The Ukraine scandal is getting more complicated by the day, but the heart of it is pretty simple: “Do us a favor, though.” It seems a significant number of Americans are convinced pressuring a foreign government to investigate your rival is unacceptable. The drips of new revelations keep the story in the news, and Trump associates keep saying more incriminating things. Maybe there will be a bigger revelation, maybe not.

Ed: The political case against impeachment has certainly been weakened, though keep in mind Trump’s whole reelection strategy is to win while losing the popular vote after getting the MAGA folk revved up into an insane hate rage. And he’ll clearly spend most of his time demonizing his opponent. It probably won’t be clear how impeachment has factored into this, based on the current evidence.

Margaret: If that central story starts getting obscured — like if Trump is able to muddy the waters — maybe it does start backfiring on Democrats

Ed: In a sense the “constitutional crisis” we’ve been alluding to may just be the previous polarization ratcheted up to the absolute maximum level — short of the Spanish Civil War model, of course.

Are We on the Verge of a Constitutional Crisis?