As the House Judiciary Committee opens the final round of hearings next week in the impeachment investigation of Donald Trump, there are, once again, reports of wavering among centrists and moderates in the Democratic Party. Although conservative news outlets have taken the lead on such reporting, there is little reason to believe the coverage is fake or exaggerated.
According to a Nov. 22 report published by Politico, “vulnerable Democrats” who represent swing districts that turned blue in 2018 “are watching in horror” as GOP-aligned interest groups flood their radio and television markets with anti-impeachment ads. The Politico article identified several swing-district moderates as coming under particularly aggressive Republican fire, including Anthony Brindisi of New York, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Ben McAdams of Utah, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.
At the heart of the anxiety is the lingering question of whether impeachment is worth the effort as long as it remains unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to convict.
A Nov. 26 Fox News story on Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence went even further, noting that Lawrence, who represents a relatively safe district and who previously backed the impeachment inquiry, apparently abandoned the cause in a recent interview on a Michigan radio program. “We are so close to an election,” Lawrence said. “I will tell you, sitting here knowing how divided this country is, I don’t see the value of taking him out of office.” Instead of impeaching Trump, Lawrence suggested the House censure the president and move on to other business.
At the heart of the anxiety expressed by Lawrence and others is the lingering question of whether impeachment is worth the effort as long as it remains unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to convict Trump of a single article of impeachment, no matter how strong the evidence against him.
I understand the concerns. They’re similar to those lawyers sometimes discuss with clients who want to file valid but costly and uncertain lawsuits. Sometimes, the best advice is to exercise caution and avoid litigation.
The Trump impeachment, however, isn’t one of those occasions, and the time for dithering and weak knees has long passed.
As Alexander Hamilton instructed during the founding era in Federalist (Paper) No. 65, impeachment is the remedy prescribed by the Constitution for holding presidents to account for the most serious abuses of power, corruption and “violations of the public trust.”
No American president—not even Richard Nixon—has done more to violate the public trust, and thus deserve impeachment, than Trump. The Ukraine-bribery conspiracy is only the tip of our 45th commander in chief’s iceberg of malfeasance. A complete laundry list of Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” would no doubt extend well beyond Ukraine and warrant citing Trump for:
- Using the presidency for personal economic gain;
- Committing campaign finance violations by paying hush money to Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels;
- Obstructing justice in connection with the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller;
- Abusing the pardon power to reward political allies;
- Abusing emergency powers to build his border wall;
- Incarcerating undocumented immigrant children in prison settings;
- Attempting to strip millions of Americans of health insurance;
- Promoting tax reform to benefit the superrich;
- Gutting environmental regulations and pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord;
- Refusing to enforce the Voting Rights Act and promoting an ideology of white supremacy.
Clearly, wavering Democrats need a shot of courage. Looking at history, they can find that courage in several sources, starting, most prominently, with the Nixon impeachment investigation.
Unlike Trump, Nixon was a genuinely popular chief executive. He won reelection in 1972 with 60.7% of the popular vote, prevailing in 49 states. His downfall, even after the initial revelations of the Watergate burglary and the protracted televised coverage of the ensuing cover-up by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities in 1973, seemed utterly improbable. Nonetheless, he fell.
Nixon’s denouement, however, was slow and painful. Public support for his impeachment and removal from office didn’t crest above 50% until late July 1974, after the Supreme Court ruled that he had to turn over secretly recorded White House audio tapes on Watergate to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. By August, the tide had fully turned, and on Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon announced he would resign from office rather than face formal impeachment in the House and near-certain removal by the Senate.
By contrast, public support for Trump’s impeachment and removal already stands at 50%. Depending on how skillfully the case is presented in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, that support is likely to rise substantially, weakening the president’s reelection prospects even if GOP senators turn their backs on the evidence and vote to acquit him.
I addressed the issue of Democratic resolve during a wide-ranging and lengthy panel discussion that aired at the end of the Pacifica Radio Network’s simulcast of the first day of the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment hearings on Nov. 13. I recommend the discussion to anyone looking for more than the usual cable news fodder on impeachment.
In addition to citing Nixon on the broadcast as a source of inspiration for those worried about losing a Trump impeachment trial in the Senate, I mentioned the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black teenager who was kidnapped, mutilated and murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at and flirting with a white woman.
Two white men were charged by a Tallahatchie County grand jury with killing Till. But despite the overwhelming evidence of guilt presented by a courageous and decent local district attorney named Gerald Chatham, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury that deliberated for a mere 68 minutes. The verdict, though outrageous, surprised no one. The defendants were never made to pay for their crimes, but their acquittal became a catalyst for later advances in the civil rights movement.
Invoking the legacy of Till on the Pacifica Radio Network program, I asked if the 1955 murder prosecution should have gone forward, in light of the small odds of a conviction. The answer, everyone on the panel agreed, was yes.
Impeachment is not a legal proceeding, but a hybrid of law and politics. But the case of Emmett Till stands for a proposition that applies in both settings: Sometimes principle must prevail over pragmatism. The road to justice is rocky, but it must be traversed.
No matter what happens in the Senate, the Trump impeachment should and must move forward.