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Voting Off the Apprentice President

The case for impeaching Trump

Should Donald Trump be impeached? It’s far from a settled question on the left these days. Left-leaning opponents of impeachment warn that a concerted bid to remove Trump from office could backfire on the Democrats. Trump’s impeachment would divert the energies of the resistance, alienate white working class voters, and leave us with a new president, Mike Pence, who could end up being even more destructive than Trump. Better to leave the GOP governing class to stew in its own self-made constitutional crisis.

But these concerns are misplaced. Impeachment is the right thing to do on the merits; Donald Trump is flagrantly and unconstitutionally abusing his power and must be stopped. Impeaching Trump is also the right course of action from a strategic standpoint. Far from imperiling the Democrats’ standing with the scattered constituencies of the left, a Trump impeachment would dramatically demonstrate to voters that the Democratic Party’s days of coddling the rich and powerful and shielding them from accountability are over.

A Trump impeachment would dramatically demonstrate to voters that the Democratic Party’s days of coddling the rich and powerful are over.

The legal grounds for impeaching Trump are compelling. Trump ordered former FBI director James Comey to shut down the investigation into the Russia ties of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When Comey refused, Trump abruptly sacked him. In an extraordinary act of self-incrimination, he even admitted on national television that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he decided to go ahead with Comey’s termination. I’m no lawyer, but that certainly looks like a prima facie case of obstruction of justice.

The other promising legal case for impeachment centers on Trump’s probable breach of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from profiting from the office. As Brianne J. Gorod of the Constitutional Accountability Center has noted, this provision bars the president “from receiving . . . other than his salary, any ‘emolument’—any compensation, gift, or other form of profit or gain—from foreign governments, the United States, or state governments and their instrumentalities.” Trump has steadfastly refused to divest from his business assets. Here, too, the case for an impeachment charge seems fairly cut and dried: It would appear that, from the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been shamelessly violating this constitutional requirement. A group of prominent constitutional lawyers has indeed filed a lawsuit aimed at prohibiting Trump from receiving financial compensation from foreign governments. 

While most leftists agree that Trump needs to be held accountable for his brazen and contemptuous flouting of the law, some critics have questioned whether impeachment is the right tool. In These TimesJeff Alson supports “pursuing the truth about possible Russian collusion through a special prosecutor.” But the special prosecutor who has been appointed to the case, Robert Mueller, serves at the president’s pleasure; he’s subject to dismissal by Trump-appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And there are other reasons why a special prosecutor may not be able to hold Trump accountable, including the not-at-all-remote possibility that the Supreme Court could declare the president immune from prosecution (at least while he is in office).

Other Trump foes on the left, including Bernie Sanders, have called for a “bipartisan” investigation. But in political climate as polarized as our own, the effectiveness of a congressional investigation in a Republican-controlled House and Senate is doubtful. Another “bipartisan” means of investigating Trump is an independent commission. But such commissions have an unfortunate tendency to whitewash the facts. (Bush’s commission investigating shortfalls in American intelligence capabilities, for instance, didn’t even investigate the failure to document the complete absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the 2003 US invasion. ) Independent commissions have another serious flaw: like congressional investigations, they make it hard to effectively prosecute the relevant wrongdoers, because they can offer immunity in exchange for witness testimony. An independent commission is probably a non-starter anyway, since it would require the approval of Congress, and congressional Republicans have made it clear that that’s not about to happen. 

Of course, impeachment efforts face a similar hurdle, and GOP resistance will, if anything, be even more fierce. But if the Democrats take back the House in 2018, it’s a new ball game. And even if they don’t, a drive to impeach Trump could produce significant political benefits for the left. A well-organized impeachment movement would shine a spotlight on Trump’s outrageously corrupt actions and demand that Congress take action. This would weaken not only Trump himself but also the entire GOP: Republican lawmakers would be forced to choose between remaining loyal to a widely despised president or distancing themselves from him and risking the wrath of Trump’s ferociously loyal base. Yes, Trump’s massive unpopularity is already trashing the Republican brand, even absent a credible threat of impeachment. But a strong impeachment movement would turn the political pressure up to eleven.

The failure to impeach, on the other hand, would come with a serious political cost: it would normalize Trumpian corruption and contempt for democracy. The Democratic majority in Congress refrained from impeaching George W. Bush, even though his actions, including launching a war on grounds the administration knew to be false and torturing and illegally detaining prisoners of war, were monstrous violations of human rights and international law. That Bush and his cronies were not held accountable only served to enshrine torture and wars of aggression as standard features of American foreign policy. Another depressing example of Democratic complicity with corruption was the Obama administration’s failure to prosecute major Wall Street figures for fraud in the wake of the financial crisis. The message to the bankers was unmistakable: even if your sleazy financial scams bring down the entire global financial system, you can rest easy. Not only will Uncle Sam spare you from prosecution; he’ll bail your ass out.

It’s worth recalling, in contrast to this dismal record, that the Democrats weren’t always so cozy with white-collar criminals. They led the impeachment efforts against Richard Nixon in the 1970s, and even up until the early 1990s, they were capable of taking strong stands against corporate crooks. In the aftermath of the savings and loans crisis that exploded in the late 1980s, more than 1,000 people, hundreds of them Wall Street executives, were successfully prosecuted for felonies. By contrast, only one top banker went to jail for his role in the financial crisis. 

In the interim, something had happened to the Democrats—and America. Neoliberalism, the free-market doctrine that had been gathering strength since the 1970s, swept away all in its path. By the time of the financial crisis, it had become the dominant ideology of political elites in both parties. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant has pointed out, one of the peculiarities of the neoliberal regime is that at the same time it was dramatically stepping up mass incarceration and inflicting increasingly harsh legal penalties on the poor, it grew distinctly more indulgent toward the economic crimes of corporations and the rich. Wacquant has noted that white-collar offenders who commit crimes like those Trump has been accused of throughout his career—fraud, money laundering, violations of the commerce and labor codes, and the like—are “much less likely to be detected, prosecuted, and sentenced in criminal court than street scofflaws.”

It’s no accident that this perp-codddling ethos has produced a culture of impunity for the rich. Rather, as Matthew Yglesias has argued, it’s the natural culmination of “a decades-long ideological campaign to do as much as possible to empower the wealthy and powerful.” No one has benefitted more from this corrupt system than Donald Trump. His rise to power was made possible by a political economy designed to protect the rich. His business empire broke the law time and again, but every time he was caught, the only penalty he paid was a fine. He is the poster boy for the rigged economy.

Activism is a not a zero-sum game.

Some lefties argue that efforts to impeach or investigate Trump are misguided, a clumsy attempt to gin up a new Cold War with Russia, or make excuses for Hillary Clinton’s lousy campaign. But those arguments are missing the point. Let’s keep it simple, and stick to a tried-and-true principle that has long guided inquiries into political corruption: follow the money. There are excellent reasons to believe that Trump and his cronies are taking money to promote the interests of a Russian (or, in Michael Flynn’s case, Turkish) despot. Such deals are rooted in exactly the kind of money-for-access scheme that is poisoning our democracy. Moreover, Trump appears to be doing precisely what the Constitution says a president should never do: using the office for personal profit. If we don’t draw a line in the sand here and now, when will we ever?

Contrary to the claims of Alson and others, an effort to impeach Trump is unlikely to hurt Democrats with voters. Trump’s hardcore base will support him no matter what, but the rest of the electorate is amenable to persuasion. Measures to bring accountability back into our political system are broadly popular. 79 percent of Americans thought that more bankers should have been prosecuted following the financial collapse, and recent polls show that a plurality of voters favor impeachment. The fortunes of the Democratic Party have suffered because it is seen as—and indeed is—deeply compromised. The Democrats are ostensibly the party of working people, but too often, its leaders have promoted policies that work in direct opposition to the interests of the 99 percent. Many prominent Democrats have supported deregulating Wall Street, privatizing the schools, participating in efforts to cut Social Security, and treating white collar crime with extreme leniency. 

It’s long past time, in other words, for the Democrats to soundly repudiate their complicity in creating and sustaining the culture of impunity for the rich. One of the most potent ways they can do that is by impeaching Trump. The message to voters would be clear: a party that boldly fights against corrupt plutocrats like Trump is a party that will fight boldly for you.

Yes, if Trump is removed from office, we will end up with the loathsome Pence, but is he really someone we should fear politically? Pence is a maladroit hack who, even in a red state like Indiana, was the kind of politician who gets booed at baseball games. When he joined the ticket, he was getting low approval ratings and was essentially tied with his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race. Besides, he’d certainly be no worse than Trump on policy and temperamentally, he’d be a vast improvement. Be honest: whose finger would you rather have on the nuclear button, Pence’s or Trump’s? 

Nor will an impeachment drive be a distraction from the activist agenda on the left. Yes, leftists need to keeping resisting every one of the GOP’s wretched policies, and keep fighting for our dream of a more just and more fair America. But activism is a not a zero-sum game. Even if an impeachment attempt fails, it would damage Trump and the Republicans on all fronts. As Frances Fox Piven argued, the era of Trump challenges us to throw sand in the gears of everything. The impeachment process, which would bring efforts to pass Trump’s agenda to a screeching halt, is entirely consistent with that goal. And a bonus is that it will not only be a duty, but a pleasure.

It’s time to ring down the curtain on this shambolic disgrace of a president. Let’s impeach the son of a bitch—now.