It may be risky politically, but Congress has a responsibility to act.
By Elizabeth Drew
Ms. Drew is a journalist based in Washington who covered Watergate.
The decision facing the House Democrats over whether to proceed with an impeachment of President Trump is both more difficult and more consequential than the discussion of it suggests. The arguments offered by House leaders, in particular, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, against it are understandable, including that impeachment could invite a wrenching partisan fight; render the party vulnerable to the charge that it’s obsessed with scoring points against Mr. Trump; and distract Democrats from focusing on the legislation of more interest to voters.
But the Democrats would also run enormous risks if they didn’t hold to account a president who has clearly abused power and the Constitution, who has not honored the oath of office and who has had a wave of campaign and White House aides plead guilty to or be convicted of crimes.
The argument that the Democratic House wouldn’t be able to focus on substantive legislation is the flimsiest rationale. It did so in 1974 while the House Judiciary Committee was considering the impeachment of Richard Nixon. It seems clear that what the Democratic leaders are actually worried about is public relations. The press no doubt would focus on that sexier subject.
Several Democrats are trying to have it both ways. They want to avoid giving the impression that they’re chasing impeachment — heaven forfend! — while at the same time various committees are attempting to expose Mr. Trump’s tax returns, his business dealings and whether his financial interests guided some of his foreign policies — any of which could make impeachment more likely, perhaps inevitable.
The president and his allies argue that the country is “tired” of investigations, sounding very much like Nixon and his allies when they maintained that the public was weary of “wallowing in Watergate” — as if that was the definitive criterion for deciding whether to proceed with a constitutional responsibility. Some Democrats continue to fear Mr. Trump, even in his current weakened condition: They worry that his skill at hurling spitballs and assigning humiliating nicknames, and his relish for the fight — much greater than Nixon’s — could end in their failure to win an impeachment fight. Some also doubt, with reason, their party’s capacity for handling the matter skillfully.
Of course, the focus on what the Democrats will do doesn’t relieve the Republicans (who also fear the president’s verbal lash as well as his remaining power with the party’s grassroots) of all responsibility. But to act, they probably must first conclude that he’s also a grave danger to their party and that they can oppose him without too much political risk to themselves. They’re not there now. But even if the Republican-controlled Senate doesn’t vote to remove Mr. Trump, a statement by the House that the president has abused his office is preferable to total silence from the Congress. The Republicans will have to face the charge that they protected someone they knew to be a dangerous man in the White House.
The principal challenge facing the Democrats is that they’ll have to answer to history. The founders put the impeachment clause in the Constitution to allow Congress to hold accountable, between elections, a president who’s abusing power. They specified that “high crimes and misdemeanors” are not necessarily crimes on the books but arise from the singular power of the presidency.
It’s of course politically easier to go after a president for having committed a crime — for example, perjury, for which President Bill Clinton was ostensibly impeached. But that was because the House Republicans didn’t want to say out loud what they were actually going after him for: extramarital sex with an intern in the study next door to the Oval Office.