As they have run out of factual defenses of President Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine scandal, Republicans have turned to lamentations that impeachment will break the seal on a once-rare and precious procedure. Now that Trump is being impeached merely because he indisputably extorted a foreign country to smear his domestic rivals, impeachment will become a routine weapon.
“Whenever one has the president of one party now and the House of the other party I think we’re going to see this more often,” said Ohio Republican Steve Chabot. “And it really is divisive and it really does keep you from focusing on many other things.” Representative Mike Johnson adds, “The Pandora’s box they have opened today will do irreparable injury to our country in the years ahead.”
Put aside the direct implication of this complaint, which is that the Ukraine scandal is a small-potatoes partisan dispute unworthy of impeachment. Consider instead the Republicans’ simple historical argument, which is that impeachment used to be a bipartisan procedure reserved for serious abuses of presidential power, and the Pandora’s box of partisan impeachment is only being opened now.
Am I the only person who remembers the Clinton impeachment?
Against the backdrop of Trump’s endemic criminality and corruption, the level of punitive response brought to bear against Bill Clinton, in proportion to the offense, is mind-boggling. In case you either didn’t live through it or have forgotten the whole episode and your frame of reference is the landscape of Trump-era scandal, let me paint the scene for you:
Suppose the Department of Justice appointed a special prosecutor to investigate a land deal Donald Trump engaged in before he was president. And suppose they didn’t find anything criminal in the deal. (Why the DoJ would investigate one of Trump’s noncriminal deals, when he has obviously committed lots of outright fraud, is hard to say, but we need to keep the parallel with Whitewater, so let’s go with it.) And suppose, instead of appointing a widely respected special prosecutor from the president’s own party, like Robert Mueller, they handed the investigation over to a wildly partisan ideologue from the opposing party — say, Laurence Tribe.
Special prosecutor Tribe, having somehow failed to uncover any illegality in the pre-presidency land deals he was originally appointed to look into, decides to stick around and make himself a permanent investigator for any allegations that come up. Several years after his appointment, he hears that President Trump had a sexual affair with an intern. That fact would embarrass the president, but isn’t a crime, so Tribe maneuvers Trump into testifying. (In this scenario, Trump somehow agrees to testify, rather than getting a bunch of written questions he can run by his lawyers.) Under questioning, Trump lies about the affair. When exposed, he apologizes for the affair and for lying about it — Trump apologizing for anything might be the hardest part of the parallel to imagine — but Democrats decide to impeach him for perjury anyway.
From the standpoint of 2019, none of these steps seem plausible in isolation, and all of them in combination are unfathomable. Impeaching a president for lying about an affair seems impossibly puritanical. We currently have a president who has been credibly accused of sexual assault by two dozen women and who has lied more than 15,000 times since taking office, and nobody in Congress is even contemplating impeaching him for either of these things.
Trump could probably avoid impeachment if he just apologized for pressuring foreign countries to smear his rivals rather than openly continuing to do it. (If we want to make the Clinton parallel totally perfect, imagine that he responded to impeachment by appearing on the White House lawn with his arm around Monica Lewinsky, telling reporters his testimony was “perfect” and that he and Monica have a date that night.)
If anything good at all came of the Clinton impeachment, it should have been that we would never have to hear complaints that impeachment is becoming a partisan weapon because of the Democrats. And yet here we are. Impeaching a president because the hyperpartisan special counsel failed to uncover any misconduct on his original assignment and used conduct totally unrelated to the president’s official acts to create a perjury trap has been retconned as a dignified and necessary defense of the Constitution. Impeaching a president for using his presidential powers for a purpose nobody in either party would have thought to defend before he attempted it is the impeachment that opened the Pandora’s box.
The Republican lamentation about impeachment becoming partisan comes along with an implicit threat, which some Republicans have made explicitly, to turn it on the next Democratic president. To be clear, for the threat to have any meaning, it has to mean not impeaching a president for real offenses, but vindictively to smear them with trumped-up charges. We were going to be nice to Joe Biden, but now we’re going to investigate him up the wazoo with trumped-up charges. It might be a scary threat if they weren’t doing that exact thing right now.