Democrats and progressive activists have been forced to grapple with this crucial question in the days after the Mueller report provided a 400-page look into President Donald Trump's rampant misconduct and potential obstruction of justice.
"If any other human being in this country had done what's documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Some progressives urged House Democrats to immediately launch impeachment proceedings, arguing that anything less would be an abdication of constitutional responsibility.
But others said Democrats must instead place their emphasis on soundly defeating Trump at the ballot box by focusing on healthcare, income inequality, and the climate crisis.
Congressional Democrats and the party's 2020 presidential contenders have come out in favor one or the other position—or some combination of the two—in the wake of Mueller's findings, which are the product of a sprawling two-year investigation into Trump's White House and businesses.
"Just about every Democrat agrees that the Donald Trump presidency has been a nightmare, and that the sooner it ends the better. How we get there is less certain," Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, wrote in a Guardian op-ed this week.
A range of Democratic positions on the impeachment question was on full display during CNN's town halls with five 2020 presidential candidates Monday night.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unequivocally doubled down on her earlier call for the House to initiate impeachment proceedings and dismissed concerns about possible political backlash.
"There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution," Warren added. "If any other human being in this country had done what's documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail."
Senator Warren on impeachment: “If there are people in the House or the Senate who want to say that’s what a president can do, when the president is being investigated for his own wrongdoings...then they should have to take that vote and live with it for the rest of their lives.” pic.twitter.com/hqz9zjCYjV
— Josh Campbell (@joshscampbell) April 23, 2019
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was less straightforward than Warren, but nonetheless backed impeachment hearings due to the "good evidence pointing to obstruction."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for his part, advocated a more cautious approach and argued that rushing head-long into an impeachment battle would benefit Trump.
While expressing his support for a "thorough" congressional investigation into possible obstruction, the Vermont senator also cautioned that a prolonged and intense impeachment fight would suck oxygen from key issues that impact the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans.
"If for the next year, year-and-a-half going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump... and we're not talking about healthcare, we're not talking about raising the minimum wage to a living wage, we're not talking about combating climate change, we're not talking about sexism and racism and homophobia and all of the issues that concern ordinary Americans—what I worry about is that works to Trump's advantage," Sanders said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders argues that a focus on impeachment of President Trump means that we're not talking about "the issues that concern ordinary Americans. What I worry about is that works to Trump’s advantage" #SandersTownHall https://t.co/LOk64BMGid pic.twitter.com/CaI8j0zuFh
— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) April 23, 2019
Closing out the night of town halls, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Democrats in Congress can both begin impeachment proceedings and run issue-focused campaigns.
"Congress is going to have to figure out how to do several things at once," said Buttigieg.
The presidential candidates' town halls came just hours after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the House Democratic caucus Monday urging unity in the party's "search for the truth and in upholding the security of our elections."
Pelosi did not rule out impeachment proceedings in her letter, but the House Speaker said before the release of the Mueller report that impeaching Trump is "just not worth it."
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House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) provoked outrage by similarly dismissing impeachment as "not worthwhile" just hours after the special counsel's findings were made public.
"Remarkable cowardice and dereliction of basic duty," the Washington Post's Greg Sargent tweeted in response to Hoyer's remarks.
"The only way to repudiate his right-populism is at the ballot box, decisively showing what polls indicate—that Americans want real, progressive solutions to their problems."
—Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin
As Common Dreams reported last Friday, progressive advocacy groups immediately began to pressure Democratic leaders to move toward impeachment following the release of the Mueller report, which documented at least ten instances in which Trump may have obstructed justice.
"We will not treat this as normal," said the progressive group MoveOn, which has over a million members nationwide. "And politicians in Washington must not continue to conduct business as usual. Everyone in Congress must look in the mirror and decide how they will fulfill their oath to defend our Constitution—and which side of history they want to be on."
Some progressive commentators and lawmakers wholeheartedly agreed.
After the Mueller report dropped, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) signaled support for moving ahead with impeachment proceedings.
John Nichols, columnist for The Nation, tweeted that the "argument for the impeachment of Donald Trump has been strengthened by the Mueller report."
The argument for the #impeachment of Donald Trump has been strengthened by the #MuellerReport. But even if there had never been a special counsel, the case for #impeachment would be compelling—as a constitutional, moral & practical duty.
Let me explain... https://t.co/IjK6QHdsJF
— John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) April 21, 2019
Jacobin's Sunkara countered that the push for impeachment is a serious political mistake, particularly given that the Republican-controlled Senate would almost certainly decline to impeach the president.
"The immediate goal is to get Trump out of office. But no one thinks that this can happen given the current composition of Congress," said Sunkara. "Talk of impeachment, then, is purely rhetorical."
Calling impeachment hearings "political theater" that would risk "squandering a historic opening to advocate for social reforms," Sunkara said Democrats would be better off pushing a clear and bold political agenda that meets the needs of the vast majority of Americans.
This, Sunkara argued, is a more effective path to defeating both Trump and Trumpism.
"I find everything about Trump, from his demeanor to the human costs of his policies, to be reprehensible," said Sunkara. "The only way to repudiate his right-populism is at the ballot box, decisively showing what polls indicate—that Americans want real, progressive solutions to their problems."
On the other side of this argument, Jeffrey C. Isaac, professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, writes that even recognizing the possible downsides, an impeachment push is worth the risk.
In a column for Common Dreams on Tuesday, Isaac writes:
Does such a political strategy have risks? Can it fail? Of course. All political strategies have risks, and none are assured of success. But business as usual also has risks. The Trump presidency is not a "normal" presidency, Trump is not a normal president, and the 2020 election will not be a normal election. Impeachment will not remove Trump from office. Only the election can do that. But impeachment can be a shot across the bow, a serious enactment of constitutionalism, and a very public “reality show” featuring a real contest between a dangerous President and his craven Republican supporters on the one hand, and a politically compelling Democratic Party on the other.
For political observers like Nichols, as he argued in a piece for The Progressive, the time for debating the question is done.
The impeachment of Trump is appropriate, Nichols wrote, "because of the high crimes and misdemeanors that we know Donald Trump has committed. It is appropriate because of the damage that Donald Trump's policies have done already, and because of the damage that we know the continuation of his presidency will do. The time for waiting and seeing is over."