A reader called our last column the most “unintelligent, uneducated, rambling, self-serving piece of absolute garbage” she’d ever encountered. She was topped by a letter to the editor labeling us (for quoting the Bible) in the company of “Satan and his willing followers.” It seems that if we can agree on only one thing in today’s America, it’s that we can’t agree on anything.
Consider impeachment: Not even the Democrats can agree among themselves on this one. The U.S. House of Representatives faces a quandary of Gordian Knot quality. There is widespread agreement on the left (and even among many conservatives) that the American experiment in democracy is at stake and that Trump’s re-election could seal its fate.
So…start impeachment proceedings now? It may energize his base. When the Senate fails to convict, Trump surely will claim he has been (re-)exonerated. As did Bill Clinton, he may well leave the process stronger than he came in. If the House impeaches, the Senate fails to convict and Trump ekes out another victory, the proceedings will be widely judged to have backfired.
Skip impeachment? Trump is known for confounding the experts and he may do that in beating the polls and being re-elected (perhaps with a second helping of Putinical assistance). Then it’s too late to impeach and history may forever wonder why — when democracy most needed us — we chose to sit on our hands. We might collectively end up substituted for Neville Chamberlain’s photo under the dictionary entry for “appeasement.”
Doing nothing is hard to swallow. Even pre-impeachment proceedings, large numbers of Americans believe Trump to be a criminal. While many are hesitant to embrace impeachment, experience with Nixon suggests that opinion quickly galvanizes once evidence is presented unambiguously on primetime TV. And we have more than 1,000 former federal prosecutors who signed on to a letter asserting that Trump would have been criminally prosecuted but for living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In short, letting the process run its course is in many senses the right thing to do.
On the other hand, Americans have short attention spans, and there was no Fox & Friends or social media during the Nixon hearings to distort facts and evidence. The Senate majority leader then was not married to a member of Nixon’s cabinet with some very lucrative but questionable ties and connections. And there was no Lindsey Graham. Poor, frightened Lindsey Graham. In other words, right is one thing, easy quite another. And as your president explained last week, Trump’s no Nixon: “He left. I don’t leave.”
Another option: Devote all available energy to defeating Trump at the ballot box. Admit the jury won’t convict, so don’t bother with a trial. With no silver bullet of (actual) exoneration available to the president, he’ll have to fight off charges and evidence of wrongdoing day after day, right up to the election. The theory is voters are sick of the lying and corruption, and a public referendum on his presidency avoids the taint of alleged political machinations of an overreaching House. Yes, it’s practical. But, as above, he’s known for surprising and the country is deeply divided. Election victory is not be guaranteed.
We suggest another alternative to resolving this sticky wicket. It’s one the master showman himself might otherwise admire. It goes like this: Start a fire, declare a crisis, then establish full disclosure and truth as the only ways to put it out. Loudly declare a midsummer deadline by which all documents, witnesses and everything else requested or subpoenaed must be furnished. Failure to comply triggers articles of impeachment. This prevents Trump from running out the clock, gives voters what they need and, if there’s to be an impeachment, insulates the House against charges of political opportunism.
We can’t guarantee success. What we know is that whatever lessons history might otherwise offer are liable to apply less these days than they once did. We also know that impeachment has a way of refocusing the attention. Hours and hours of televised hearings on what the president knew, what he did to cover up what he knew, promises just the kind of broad appeal the Trump administration is working very hard to avoid. Likewise, letting hard evidence of corruption and incompetence continue to pile up through the primaries and into the general election is not a bad way to keep the president’s record low approval ratings in the cellar.
Even those of you who’ve faithfully read this far into our column would agree that the average American has a shorter-than-ever attention span. Short of gavel-to-gavel, televised impeachment proceedings, the general public will never fully consider or even peruse what special counsel Robert Mueller wrote or grasp why it matters. Our option would throw into the equation a weapon that, so far, only the president has regularly employed — the power and allure of reality TV on steroids, this time focused squarely on his jaw-dropping misdeeds and his cavalier trampling on the U.S. Constitution, which all of us supposedly revere.
The American people can show great wisdom and will stand up for right and against wrong when they see it clearly. Put the ball first in Trump’s court and, when he refuses to cooperate, let the proceedings begin.