Although Robert Mueller filed his massive report with the Justice Department, the special counsel must have known he was actually forwarding an impeachment referral to Congress. Between his decision to forgo a criminal indictment of the president and his incriminating recital of the president's 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice, Mueller left no alternative -- except an unthinkable dereliction that would place Trump beyond legal accountability and endow him with dictatorial power.
And just in case he didn't make that difficult choice plain enough, Mueller delivered sharp reminders about congressional responsibility in dealing with such a figure in the White House.
"With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution," he wrote, "we concluded that Congress has the authority to prohibit a President's corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice." Noting that Congress "may apply obstruction laws to the President's corrupt exercise of the powers of office," Mueller added that such action "accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law."
But that responsibility doesn't solve the political problem that confronts the congressional Democrats, whose leaders worry that wielding impeachment unwisely would actually strengthen the would-be tyrant, rather than depose him. That concern cannot be lightly dismissed by anyone who realizes how great a danger Trump poses to the republic.
The consequences of the Clinton impeachment may well be on the minds of Democratic leaders, who remember how national resentment over that fiasco led not only to a midterm loss for the Republicans in 1998 but to the humiliating defenestration of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich by his own caucus. (His deputy Tom DeLay eventually replaced him with Dennis Hastert, whose moral sermonizing didn't save him from prison as a child molester.)
While memories of that historic episode may counsel caution, the differences between now and then are stark. President Clinton's approval ratings were high before impeachment and rose to record levels when the public understood the thin evidence and partisan motives arrayed against him. Trump's approval rating remains low, and the damning evidence against him can only further undermine his standing. Clinton's lies arose from his concealment of an illicit affair. Trump's falsehoods were meant to hide a betrayal of democracy.
More plausible is a comparison with the impeachment process that deposed then-President Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate -- a scandal that involved a gross assault on democratic values as well as multiple attempts by the president to block the investigation. The Mueller report is much more reminiscent of Leon Jaworski's "road map" to Nixon's crimes than the salacious Starr report on Clinton.
And the conduct of the House Democratic leadership today -- sober, serious, deliberate -- is more like the process followed by their predecessors in the Nixon case than the rush to impeachment by the ill-fated Gingrich and his overzealous crew (which included a young representative named Lindsey Graham). The Republicans' intemperate behavior only brought further discredit on what was already a weak, widely detested prosecution.
Of all the many differences between the last time America faced a presidential impeachment and today, however, the most glaring is this: Two decades ago, when the Republicans tried to remove twice-elected Bill Clinton from office, they felt obliged to uphold the rule of law -- or at least, that was what they told us. Today's Republicans believe in the rule of law only when a Democrat is president.
That double standard is obvious in their casual dismissal of the Mueller report. They pretend not to see the copious evidence that Trump obstructed justice, over and over again -- the same offense that Graham and his fellow impeachment managers once defined as the epitome of "high crimes and misdemeanors." They fear the demagogue more than they cherish their oath to uphold the Constitution. The likelihood that politicians with such a degenerated sense of virtue will vote to remove him, no matter what is proved at trial, is very small.
So every path forward is perilous, and voting to impeach Trump isn't the only conceivable conclusion. But House Democrats must now investigate, gather all the evidence, convene public hearings, ensure that every American knows what this president has done -- and then decide what to do about him.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.