I just completed the first of three weeks in Washington running my annual program for Villanova, and while the humidity was refreshingly low, the political barometric pressure was intense. Despite what they are saying in front of cameras, Democrats are out of patience with the unprecedented obstruction they have been facing from the Trump administration and the desire to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry is palpable. It is difficult to spend time around congressional Democrats and imagine that Donald Trump will not be impeached at some point this year. Nancy Pelosi is trying to keep her caucus in neutral long enough to gather the tools they will need to make impeachment a winning political hand. She believes it would be counterproductive to set up a mock trial in the Senate, and that if you’re going to impeach, you have to win. But the urgency of the political moment complicates this balancing act.
Any hope of changing public opinion about impeachment requires driving a national narrative about the crimes of this administration and how they threaten our welfare. This means toppling the stone wall that Trump has built around providing documents and permitting witness testimony that will expose his financial history and the risk he poses to national security. I spoke with a senior congressional aide who asserted that the fire at the heart of all the smoke is plain: Trump engaged in financial crimes with criminal elements linked to hostile powers, selling out American security interests to line his pockets and avoid culpability. This is an easy narrative to frame once the supporting evidence is in full view, which is why House leadership believes the battle for transparency has to precede the impeachment decision — and why Trump’s unprecedented level of obstruction has been so total.
There are indications that the court system and federalism will enable Democrats to win this battle — eventually. Just this week, Democrats scored decisive judicial victories over administration attempts to cordon off damaging documents and testimony through baseless claims of executive privilege, which (despite the well-placed fears of progressives) are not likely to be overturned on appeal or left to languish in the judicial system. The stakes are so high and the administration’s claims so flimsy that Trump is not going to come close to running out the clock with a year and a half left to go. Meanwhile, New York inched closer to providing a legal basis for making Trump’s state tax returns available to congress as soon as this summer through legislation that Governor Cuomo has pledged to sign into law.
And yet, this is not nearly enough to calm the political waters. In legal terms, things are moving with tremendous speed, but in political terms we continue to advance at the pace of a snail, given the magnitude of the issues involved. Hence the build-up of pressure to act and act soon, which is consuming the Democratic caucus and forcing leadership into the awkward and unconvincing posture of simultaneously acknowledging that Trump has committed impeachable offenses while calling for patience on impeachment. It is a race against time for Pelosi to get financial and national security evidence in front of the American people before her calls for continued restraint crumble under the weight of their own ridiculousness.
The great irony of this situation is that Republicans are defending a president who committed unprecedented crimes against the constitution, yet it is Democrats who are divided over what to do about it. I believe Pelosi is correct that a full airing of the evidence would transform the politics of impeachment. Just watch how Trump has been escalating his rhetoric — now claiming that his critics committed treason by daring to investigate him — and remember that Trump always projects on others that which he knows to be true about himself. Forcing Senate Republicans to acquit a president charged with the highest of crimes has the potential to irrevocably split the Republican Party. But that requires a full airing of the evidence, and the clock is ticking.