March 10, 2017 by Robert Zaller
Almost every day, I get an invitation in my computer mailbox to join a petition calling for the impeachment of Donald Trump. How it is that I have been identified as someone who does not subscribe to Breitbart News I do not know, but I have thus far refrained from signing on. This is not because I have not made up my mind about the subject, but because I am of several minds about it.
I have said previously that I regard Trump’s election as illegitimate because his victory in swing states was enabled by voter suppression, but that is not to say it was illegal: voter suppression is an old and honored tradition that both of our major parties have followed, and the Obama administration had been very slow to combat the particular brand of it exhibited in November, namely new ID requirements, a reduction in polling places in targeted areas, and the like.
We have Trump in office for many reasons, but the decisive one is that our political system is in general designed to discourage citizen participation, most notably voting, to the maximum feasible extent. This is completely wrong if democracy is at all right, but, as matters stand, it is not illegal. It is the essence of what we have actually established by law.
The question of impeachment, too, is a legal matter, although the Founding Fathers, so precise in other matters, were content to keep the grounds of impeachment as open as possible. “High crimes and misdemeanors” are what make a president removable from office, and what these mean in any given case are left to its judges, to wit the sitting representatives of the United States Congress, to define, specify and determine.
Impeachment is thus fundamentally a political process, carried out under color of law. It is a unique species of jurisdiction as applicable to a unique office, the presidency, whose powers are correspondingly elastic, but which reach — in the current state of play — from pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey to the potential annihilation of the human race.
The discussion about impeaching Trump began before he took office, for the simple reason that he was manifestly unfit for it. It has, to this point, devolved upon two principal issues: whether as president, Trump has violated the so-called Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which broadly speaking prohibits public officers from receiving gifts from foreign states and using their office as a tool of personal profit; and whether, during the course of his presidential campaign and since, he has permitted, encouraged, or colluded with a foreign power bent on interfering with the domestic political process. These issues are separable, but they also overlap. They encompass corruption on the one hand, and treason on the other.
The question of emoluments would appear straightforward. Trump, principally through members of his immediate family, continues to operate a commercial enterprise that does business in thirty-odd countries. He has stated that he has, or will divorce himself from direct management of this enterprise, but he has not made public the instruments by which his role is to be defined: or, rather, he showed a large table of boxes at a press briefing which purported to contain these instruments, but refused to allow the contents be examined. It would be difficult to say whether the moment was more Dickensian or Kafkaesque. Dickensian, because the notion of a power of attorney spread out in unmarked heaps of paper was as ribald as a High Victorian belly-laugh; Kafkaesque, because the farce was played out with completely straight faces by all concerned. Impeachment was designed to deal with abuses of power; it was not meant to navigate the Land of Oz.
Trump’s response to criticism of this spectacle was that nothing obliges him to divest himself of any private business because the president is exempt from conflict of interest rules to begin with. This appears to be his own take on the Nixon doctrine that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. On the other hand, if the Constitution actually does apply to him, then he has certainly been guilty of violating both the spirit and the letter of the Emoluments Clause from day one of his election. A Congressional impeachment committee armed with subpoena powers would, I am sure, have little difficulty documenting this.
The other issue is the Russian Connection. It is not surprising that Trump should have long expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, who is exactly the kind of unfettered autocrat Trump fantasizes himself being, who by report has made himself personally rich beyond even The Donald’s dreams, and whose critics are subject to far harsher sanctions than early morning tweets. But there is also the question of how much Trump himself, and some of his closest aides, are financially invested in Russia; how much Trump may imagine a Russian-American condominium to rule Europe and the Middle East and constrain the ambitions of China in Asia and elsewhere; and how much Trump’s election campaign may have courted, benefited from, and even co-orchestrated the alleged Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign communications as well as those of the Democratic National Committee.
On the first of these matters, Trump now states that he has and has had no business interests in Russia, his former hosting of a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow notwithstanding. This assertion was given the lie nearly a decade ago by his son, Donald Jr., who said that the Trump organization received a significant revenue stream from its Russian operations. The release of Trump’s tax returns would presumably shed light on the subject, but Trump has of course withheld them, with the support of Congressional Republicans who have circled the wagons around the Dear Leader of their party.
We do know that his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had such close personal ties with the Russians that he was forced to resign from the campaign last summer, and that his most peculiar choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, was on such chummy business and personal terms with Putin that he was given a merit badge for friendship. Needless to say, such relationships implicate not only personal fortunes but public policy. Meanwhile, Trump’s national security advisor, Mike Flynn, was forced to resign three weeks into the administration for concealing his backdoor contacts with Russia’s seemingly ubiquitous U.S. ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, and his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has been similarly caught out.
If all this is not proof positive of sinister collusion, there is Trump’s own breezy invitation to the Russians to hack away further at Hillary last July, when the first damaging leaks about her campaign were coming out. To some, that might have seemed a jest at the time; from what we know now, it clearly bears further investigation.
Here’s where the treason part comes in. To be sure, the U.S. has little ground to be calling any kettle black on the subject of foreign interference in elections; by bullet or ballot, we have removed candidates and actual national leaders whom we deemed inimical to our interests across five continents over the past seven decades. This includes Russian allies or figures in Near Abroad states critical to its security such as Ukraine, and so turn-about in an election of our own would only be fair play from the Kremlin’s point of view. The issue, though, is what and when Trump and his team knew of such actions, and what quid pro quo may have been offered to ensure that his campaign remained the beneficiary and not the victim of Russian hacking. That would be conspiracy with a foreign power to tamper in a domestic election, which is treason with a capital T.
We don’t know for sure that Russian hacking did occur, the assertions of the CIA and other intelligence agencies notwithstanding; no public proof has yet been offered. Subpoenaed records and testimony under oath would presumably shed light on the matter, and an independent inquiry has been called for. Such things take time, however. To be sure, there appear to be a number of other issues that could rise to the level of impeachable offenses, such as the failure to duly execute the laws and the deliberate crippling of agencies designed to enforce them, the calling into disrepute of coequal branches of government, and so forth. But incompetence and name-calling are one thing; willful and demonstrable malfeasance are another. Impeachment needs a smoking gun, and, for the moment, the Russian Connection seems the best candidate.
There are, moreover, other considerations. The Republican Party establishment is trying to cope with a president it never wanted, and who brings it fresh embarrassment every day. On the other hand, it is also trying to exploit him in what Trump svengali Steve Bannon calls deconstructing “the administrative state,” by starving as many agencies and scuttling as many rules and regulations as possible, particularly those which protect the public and the environment from disaster capitalism. Trump is so outrageous that he can get away with the outrageous; and, besides, it would do the Party no good to scuttle him too early in the game. The process must be one of reaping the early harvest and then slowly distancing oneself from the ploughman. It’s easier said than done.
The Democrats, for their part, are none too anxious to have Mike Pence as president until the backlash to Republican policies has set in and he himself has been compromised sufficiently by his association with Trump. I’d like to see that happen too, because killing off the Republican Party in its present form has long been high on my wish list, with seeking the same fate for the Democratic establishment only a little further down. Unfortunately, a plague on all your houses is also a plague on the country itself, which I most certainly do not wish. Hence my several minds
Trump still has a large and supportive constituency, and it would be useful for it to be disabused of his promises to it, notably on jobs, before he has to go. On the other side, the wave of progressive resistance he has generated — the populism of the left — needs time to develop a substantive political base. From those perspectives, it would be useful if Trump could hang around a little longer. He is a perfect teaching tool on the consequences of an unreformed political system.
These are luxuries, however, the country may be unable to afford. Trump is too dangerous and irresponsible, too damaging to the country on every level, and too insupportable to bear for anyone who cares for it, to suffer for an hour. Events, too, are moving with great speed. Is it time to impeach Trump? It was never time to have elected him in the first place, and when we begin to pick up the pieces of this strangest episode in our national history, we will have to reflect seriously on the broken politics that produced him.