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Is Impeachment Really Optional? Sometimes a Strong Offense Is the Only Defense

While Democratic leaders worry about being or seeming to be too “aggressive,” Trump is now turning the tables on them, putting them—and all of us who have questioned this administration—on the defensive.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters while departing the White House May 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Japan where, according to the president, he will be the guest of honor at Japan's "biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years," when he meets with the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and new emperor, Naruhito. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters while departing the White House May 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Japan where, according to the president, he will be the guest of honor at Japan's "biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years," when he meets with the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and new emperor, Naruhito. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Thursday, the White House announced that Donald Trump has authorized Attorney General William Barr to unilaterally declassify any documents necessary to perform an investigation of the Mueller investigation. The New York Times headline accurately summarized the move: “ Trump Gives Attorney General Sweeping Power in Review of 2016 Campaign Inquiry .”

And today Trump spoke briefly with reporters on the White House lawn.

Here is what he said about his decision:

“So, we want to be very transparent so, as you know, I declassified everything they want . . . so everything that they need is declassified, and they’ll be able to see how this hoax, how the hoax, or witch hunt, started. It was an attempted coup, or attempted takedown, of the President of the United States, it should never, ever happen to anybody else . . . now, people have been asking me to declassify for a long period of time, I’ve decided to do it, and you’re going to learn a lot . . .

. . . all they [Democrats—J.I.] want is to do a redo of the Mueller report. They were very unhappy with the Mueller report . . . it’s over, there is no redo . . . . They lost. It’s very clear. There was no collusion, there was no obstruction, so there’s no redo. . . .

. . . But you have to get down to what happened. Because what happened is a tremendous blight on our country . . . the investigation, they tried to do a takedown, you can’t do that. . . . And I hope that he [Barr—J.I.] looks at the UK . . . and Australia . . . and Ukraine, because there was a hoax perpetrated on our country. . . the greatest hoax, probably, in the history of our country, and somebody has to get to the bottom of it . . . I won an election. I won easily, 306-223. I won it pretty easily. And I’ll tell you what, this is all about what happened. Because this was an attempted takedown of the President of the United States, and we have to find out. We are going to find out what happened and why it happened. It’s not payback; I don’t care about payback. I think it’s very important for our country to find out what happened.”

Trump tells a bald-faced lie when he declares, repeatedly, that he has “declassified everything they want.” For he has declassified nothing; he has, rather, authorized Barr to declassify whatever he wants. True to form, Trump repeatedly invokes “them,” as if he is somehow complying with the demands of his critics. But indeed, his authorization has no bearing on his adamant refusal to comply with any Congressional requests for information or subpoenas.

"Trump is making war on constitutional democracy and on all of those who support it... And a strong counter-offensive is the only defense."

An un-redacted version of the Mueller Report still remains off limits to Congress. Trump’s refusal to allow anyone under his authority to testify on grounds of “executive privilege” remains in force. While his words are deliberately chosen to imply compliance with “their” demands for “transparency,” in fact the only demand for “transparency” that he is satisfying is the demand of his fanatical supporters, who have long been ginning up conspiracy stories in order to delegitimize the Mueller investigation, the Department of Justice, and indeed the so-called “deep state” itself. They are the ones to whom Trump and Barr are answering, the Justice Department, or the intelligence community, or anyone else be damned.

At the same time, this lie is conjoined with a truth: by announcing this authorization of Barr, Trump is continuing his long-standing, deliberate obstruction of justice, and going one step further, by not simply refusing Congressional oversight, but by declaring an all-out political war on all forms of oversight. This assault on the Constitution is two-pronged. At the rhetorical level, he is using his “bully pulpit” to accuse a wide range of actors, including both political critics and law enforcement personnel, of doing exactly what he has done: subvert democracy and obstruct justice. But Trump’s assault is more than “rhetorical.” For he is actually using the substantial executive powers at his disposal to open an actual criminal investigation into those who have sought to exercise oversight on him. And by doing so, he is threatening with prosecution those, in the Justice Department, the intelligence community, and Congress, who are trying to hold him to account.

This is more than a “high crime and misdemeanor.” It is a felonious assault on constitutional democracy itself.

Yesterday’s announcement follows a consistent pattern. For months Trump has been describing oversight as an “attempted coup” and “takedown,” and as he has done so, he has not hesitated to describe his opponents as “treasonous .” Many of his supporters have followed suit, none more loyally than Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In late March, Sanders said to the White House press corps: “There are a lot of people who should answer questions. If Congress is so gung-ho to call people up to the Hill, the list I would start with [former FBI Director James] Comey, [former Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper, [former CIA Director John] Brennan and other people in the FBI who perpetuated this absurd lie and this absurd idea that the president of the United States was somehow a foreign agent, colluding with another government.” If this was not chilling enough, here is how she explained it to CNN: “Take a second and let that sink in, take a minute and realize how outrageous and how serious and how malicious an accusation like that is. They literally accused the president of the United States of being an agent for foreign government, that’s equivalent to treason — that is punishable by death in this country.”

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Now Trump has authorized William Barr, who controls the criminal enforcement powers of the federal government, to act, unilaterally, on these sentiments.

This is more than frightening and dangerous in itself. For it is part of a very predictable offensive by Trump against any effort to hold him accountable for his malfeasance in office.

And this is why it is foolish for Democrats any longer to “debate” the “question” of whether “normal investigations” are superior to impeachment, and whether impeachment would allow Trump to gin up his base. For Trump is not waiting around for Democrats to decide how to act. He is upping the ante. And every day that he persists in this is one day further into the past that the Mueller Report recedes, and one day more in which he and Barr can further frame everything as a nefarious plot to defame and undermine him, thus undermining “the will of the people” itself.

It is now a common place that impeachment is a constitutionally-prescribed political power invested in the House so that a President who has failed the oath of office can be called to account, investigated and then prosecuted, as it were, before the Senate and the court of public opinion.

Trump has just announced that he is commencing his own impeachment-like process, investigating his “enemies” for criminal and not civil violations of the law, in preparation for possible prosecution of these “enemies.”

While Democratic leaders worry about being or seeming to be too “aggressive,” Trump is now turning the tables on them, putting them—and all of us who have questioned this administration—on the defensive.

For decades Democrats have been disparaged on the right for “fecklessness” and “weakness.” Now Trump is punching Pelosi, Hoyer, and Schumer in the face, and they are worrying about seeming “angry” or “bellicose.” This is pathetic.

Trump is making war on constitutional democracy and on all of those who support it.

And a strong counter-offensive is the only defense.

Now is the time to open an impeachment inquiry, and to use this inquiry to expose and to weaken this President, so that he can be decisively defeated in November 2020.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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