House leaders can no longer avoid the impeachment question by saying we need to wait for the Mueller report. The report is here, and it describes in extensive detail a lawless, out of control president whose collusive entanglements with Russia and relentless efforts to obstruct anyone who might reveal them render him unfit for office. What it does not do is charge Trump with a crime or name him an unindicted co-conspirator, because Mueller determined that the evidence available to him did not meet the high standard of reasonable doubt on specific criminal charges of conspiracy. Without such a headline-grabbing move, Mueller denied Democrats the clear narrative they needed to force Republicans into a position where supporting Trump would be untenable to a substantial majority of the country, a position that’s a prerequisite to making impeachment politically feasible. But the report is far too damning for Democrats to walk away without doing anything.
Democrats face an unpleasant reality as they huddle over the holiday weekend to figure out their next steps: the political moment does not align with the constitutional moment. It is no secret that House Democratic leadership would like to avoid impeachment proceedings, which they recognize would be a hard sell in a lot of the suburban districts they picked up last November, and which they know would never lead to conviction in the Senate. They envision Republicans fundraising off a senate trial and an emboldened president claiming total vindication when acquitted, all the while stepping on their own messaging on issues like health care which were responsible for delivering the House last year. At the same time, the lawless behavior documented by Mueller is a direct threat to the republic. Members of congress have a constitutional responsibility to address it, and like it or not impeachment is the method at their disposal. America does not need a second political party enabling Donald Trump because it is politically expedient. Republicans fill that role all too well.
Trump escaped prosecution because Mueller obeyed the Justice Department directive against indicting a sitting president, and Mueller refrained from unambiguously stating Trump committed obstruction because he felt it was wrong to accuse someone of a crime without the possibility of a trial. If congress is too dysfunctional to act, then political as well as legal channels of accountability will be shut down and there will be no recourse. The president will in fact be above the law. Against this backdrop, claims that impeachment is not worthwhile, in the words of House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, sound discordant and weak. Hoyer desperately wants to pass the burden of judging Trump’s fitness to the electorate in eighteen months and keep pretending that nothing unorthodox is happening. But eighteen months is far too long to wait for an election that Democrats are not guaranteed to win, and, to put it mildly, the public didn’t take an oath to defend the constitution. Hoyer did. It’s his job.
If the public doesn’t have an appetite for impeachment, Democrats are going to have to create it. This is a risky proposition but they control the house of congress where impeachment originates, so they have powerful tools to get it done. Democrats always planned to hold hearings on the Mueller report, and they should — but they also need to hold hearings on the full scope of Trump’s behavior and they should do so with the level of urgency the moment requires. The Ways and Means, Financial Services, Intelligence and Judiciary committees should rotate public hearings on Trump’s financial entanglements, the security risks they pose, and the efforts he has undertaken to cover them up. They should start immediately with witnesses who cooperated with Mueller. Abandon the format where every member gets five meaningless minutes to ask questions in favor of extended examination by committee counsel and multiple rounds of questioning by members. If witnesses need to spend two or three days testifying, that’s two or three days of Congress dominating the news instead of the bully with the pulpit.
Every week should bring one or two such hearings to drive the simple narrative that Trump has put the nation’s security at risk for the corrupt purpose of lining his pockets and not getting caught. Think of it as counter-programming the reality show in the White House, only with far more natural drama because so much is at stake. Like the Watergate hearings, it will grip the nation and crystalize opinion among roughly half the public that presently supports impeachment and that small but crucial segment of the population that would be open to it if they are presented with the evidence.
If Mueller’s findings were going to demand action, Democrats wanted him to provide the headlines that would give them the political cover to move ahead with impeachment. Instead he gave them grounds for impeachment that cannot be ignored but left it to them to make the case. Now Democrats need to compel the politics to align with their constitutional responsibilities, because to abandon their responsibilities in light of what Mueller told us about this administration is to abandon the country.