You know the Shakespearian expression, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”? A wonderful way of describing someone who makes an argument that’s so over-the-top that it undercuts credibility?
I couldn’t help but think of it while reading the new report from the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic staff on “Constitutional Grounds for Presidential Impeachment.”
I’m not talking about the substantive credibility of the case for President Trump’s impeachment (and/or removal from office). Instead, I’m talking about the case’s political credibility. Because this new study makes nothing so clear as the belief of the Committee’s majority Democratic members that they haven’t yet convinced enough of the American people that their efforts to oust the President are justified. And no doubt this conclusion applies to numerous others in the party’s House majority and in the Senate.
No one can have any legitimate issue with the Committee releasing such a report. As Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York notes, the full committee staffs put out similar studies in connection with the 1974 impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon, and those against President Bill Clinton in 1998. (One important difference: Unlike the previous reports, this new study was the product only of one party’s staff.) And scholarship has of course advanced since then.
But in the process of “Addressing Fallacies About Impeachment,” the Democratic staff created some itself – that impeachment proponents are maintaining that impeachment “is not part of democratic constitutional governance”; that because a presidential election is coming up, a chief executive “is entitled to persist in office after committing ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors’”; and that such a President’s voters consider themselves “entitled to expect that their preferred candidate will do so.”
These arguments are transparently fallacious because none of the President’s backers has questioned the legitimacy of impeachment per se, and none believes that, whatever the political calendar, any office holder deserves to keep on serving after committing impeachable offenses.
To use an obvious but instructive example, just ask yourself: If Mr. Trump had committed a crime in public view – e.g., stood “in the middle of Fifth Avenue and [shot] somebody,” as he once suggested during his campaign, in a (typically) hyperbolic efofrt to describe his popularity with his base – does anyone seriously think that even the staunchest Trump-er would respond (if there were no extenuating circumstances, like self-defense) “Nope, nothing impeachable here. Let’s just let him serve out his term.)
(Interestingly, outside the impeachment context, the President’s lawyers have argued that Mr. Trump, or any President, couldn’t be criminally indicted for such an act while in office, but that’s a separate issue from impeachment.)
What Trump supporters are saying is that, after literally years of investigations – by Congress and by a Special Counsel (Robert Mueller) whose integrity no Trump opponent questioned – no conclusive evidence of impeachable transgressions has emerged. And that given the approach of a new election that would give the public a chance to decide the President’s fitness for office (an opportunity that was not available for second-term Presidents Nixon and Clinton), the best course for the country’s sake is moving on from the current proceedings. In other words, they’re making a political and policy argument, not a Constitutional argument.
For example, the Mueller report specifically concluded that “the evidence was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election” and, more controversially, regarding obstruction of justice allegations:
“[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
As numerous impeachment backers have pointed out, in his post-report press conference, Mueller did note, in the course of explaining the substantive and Constitutional obstacles to accusing a sitting President of criminal behavior, that “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing.” And of course that was a reference to impeachment.
But neither Mueller nor his report has stated that Mr. Trump actually has committed an impeachable defense, or explicitly said that enough evidence exists to warrant an impeachment inquiry. The Special Counsel simply observed that, if Congress has enough further problems with the President’s actions, it has a Constitutionally permitted avenue for pursuing these concerns.
It’s true that Congress has not yet had the chance to question under oath current and former administration officials who might be able to provide first-hand evidence of impeachable Presidential wrongdoing, and that the initial obstacle has been Mr. Trump’s refusal to permit them to testify.
That opposition could well stem from the President’s fear of what these figures might say. But it could also stem from legitimate concerns about executive privilege – a President’s recognized right, originating in the separation of powers created by the Constitution, to keep under wraps, including from Congress, internal deliberations of his or her administration.
This privilege is by no means absolute, and such Executive-Legislative branch disputes can be refereed by the courts. But Congress’ Democrats have declined to go this route either to compel such testimony, or free up impeachment-relevant records. In this regard, therefore, they so far have no one to blame for the absence of a “smoking gun” but themselves.
So why are the Judiciary Democrats serving up this red herring? I’m not a mind-reader, but Congress’ Democratic leaders acknowledge that they’re following the polls, and they show plain as day that, since late October, public support for impeachment and removal has fallen steadily – to the point where it’s clearly under 50 percent and still shrinking. And some evidence shows that the numbers are worse for the Democrats on this issue in key presidential election battleground states and Congressional districts crucial to their continued control of the House.
I’m not questioning whether House Judiciary Democrats, or any other Trump opponents, sincerely believe that the President has committed impeachable offenses, or whether they view the evidence as clearcut and even overwhelming. But the new Judiciary report’s baseless charge Trump supporters would oppose impeachment under any circumstances is strong evidence that, in this ultimately political debate, they’re far from making the political case.