Congress has the power, and the duty, to check a president run amok
WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believes opening an impeachment inquiry into President Trump's misdeeds would be risky. She needs to realize that not doing so is beginning to look riskier.
Next week, after special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before Congress, the impeachment question will demand an answer. Even if Mueller manages not to stray beyond the boundaries of his report, the evidence of impeachable presidential misconduct that his investigators found is clear and compelling. Hearing from Mueller's lips what amounts to a criminal indictment of Trump will surely have more impact than Mueller's dry and lengthy tome, which few have actually read.
Meanwhile, Trump's abuse of presidential power, including his open defiance of the judiciary, becomes ever more brazen and alarming. The Supreme Court has no army to enforce its rulings. Only Congress has the power, and the duty, to check a president run amok.
I think Pelosi is wrong when she warns that Trump is trying to bait House Democrats into impeachment. Even if he is confident that his lapdog Republican majority in the Senate would never actually remove him from office, I don't believe for a minute that Trump really wants the stigma and shame of being just the third president to be hauled into the dock. He goes apoplectic at the notion that help from Russia made his election somehow illegitimate; there is no way he wants yet another asterisk next to his name in the history books.
But what Trump wants is irrelevant. Pelosi has to ask herself what's best for the country -- and, since this is the real world, what's best for her party.
I have great respect for the speaker's political acumen. But after Mueller's high-profile testimony, what does she imagine Democrats are going to do for a next act? The House Judiciary Committee voted to issue a passel of new subpoenas Thursday, including one for Jared Kushner, the president's adviser and son-in-law. But does anyone think the White House is going to let Kushner testify without a long, drawn-out fight? The administration's policy of stonewalling congressional demands for documents and testimony may be unlawful, but it's effective. Getting the courts to intervene takes months. Convening a hearing with an empty chair at the witness table might be an effective public relations ploy -- once. Maybe twice. After that, it begins to look pathetic.
In terms of using public hearings to command attention and educate the nation about Trump's misdeeds, Mueller's testimony may be as good as it gets -- unless the House opens an impeachment inquiry. That could change things dramatically. Congress' power to investigate would be at its height, and courts would recognize the obvious need to act speedily to enforce properly constituted subpoenas.
If Pelosi's strategy is to build public support for impeachment with a series of didactic, consciousness-raising committee hearings, it seems to me she's putting the cart before the horse. Only an impeachment inquiry is likely to produce the kind of witness testimony and documentary evidence that is vivid and compelling enough to shape public opinion.
I know that Pelosi worries impeachment might damage the reelection prospects of the moderate House Democrats who won last year in districts Trump carried. Her concern may be justified. But she should also worry about the overall effect on the Democratic Party -- including its eventual presidential nominee -- of the House appearing to spin its wheels impotently while Trump continues to do whatever he pleases, trampling constitutional norms in the process. In a contest against the most image-conscious of presidents, I don't think that's a good look.
Beyond the political calculation, there is also the question of what Congress is obliged to do, like it or not.
Mueller's report provides ample evidence that Trump committed multiple acts of obstruction of justice. Whether or not Mueller characterizes the report as a roadmap for impeachment, that's effectively what it is. Pelosi and other Democrats keep saying that no one is above the law, including the president. But the Justice Department's view that a sitting president cannot be made to face criminal charges means that Trump is indeed above the law -- unless the one body that can hold him accountable, the Congress, does its job.
Doesn't the lawmaking branch of our government have a sacred obligation to uphold the rule of law? After we hear from Mueller, Pelosi and her caucus are going to have to answer that question. Whatever you think of Mueller's reluctance to draw conclusions, he took his job seriously. Members of the House -- beginning with Pelosi -- now must do the same.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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