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Slow Down. The Case for a Deliberate and Focused Impeachment Inquiry

Three reasons why it would be a mistake for House Democrats to rush the investigation into the president

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joins fellow House Democrats to mark 200 days since they passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act with a news conference at the U.S. Capitol September 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. Following the release of a whistle-blower complaint about abuse of power, the House Democratic leadership announced this week that it is launching a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joins fellow House Democrats to mark 200 days since they passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act with a news conference at the U.S. Capitol September 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. Following the release of a whistle-blower complaint about abuse of power, the House Democratic leadership announced this week that it is launching a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In most aspects of life it is good to be expeditious. Not all. Think of making love. Or relishing a fine wine or meal. Or enjoying a conversation. There are experiences that ought to be savored. But much of what we do is goal directed, and it typically makes sense to be as efficient as possible in achieving our goals. Act, succeed, move on.

Nancy Pelosi has declared that the House impeachment inquiry will be expeditious and many other Democrats have seconded this idea. And in a way it makes sense. If the purpose of the inquiry is to determine the facts and then simply to act on these facts, then there is no reason to delay.

Donald Trump is clearly a danger to the republic who has committed crimes and misdemeanors both high and low. He deserves to be removed from office, and we deserve to be spared further Trumpian trials and tribulations. If the current, unfolding scandal involving Ukraine is a “smoking gun,” why not just focus on this, draw up and vote on impeachment charges, and then move forward to a Senate trial, and be done with it?

There are three reasons why not.

The first is, quite simply, that “it” is not something that we can quickly be “done with.” Because it is becoming increasingly clear that this Ukraine scandal involves much more than a phone call and then the obstruction of a whistleblower. It seems to involve a concerted effort, over many months and involving many people, to pressure the Ukrainian government to cooperate with the slandering of Biden and, in so doing, to corrupt U.S. foreign policy toward a vulnerable ally whose country is under attack (by the government of the despot, Putin, who worked hard in 2016 to help Trump be elected). This must be investigated and exposed in all of its complexity, in order to clearly and accurately outline Trump’s terrible malfeasance and criminality, which involves him but also his entire administration and the people in or near it.

This is no simple matter. It requires public and perhaps also private/classified hearings involving  some or all of the following very important people: Dan Coats; Sue Gordon, the career CIA officer who was Coates’ Deputy Director and resigned within days of Coates; Jim Mattis; Mick Mulvaney; Mike Pompeo, and a number of State Department personnel who have been implicated by the whistleblower; and even John Bolton, who did not leave the White House on good terms, and who, as a hawk, could not possibly approve of the way Trump has handled Ukraine. And perhaps most importantly, it includes Bill Barr, who is making a mockery of the Justice Department. It is important for Congress and the public to get to the bottom of Trump’s Ukraine scandal, and this must involve seeking testimony from all of those who have occupied crucial national security roles in the Trump administration over the past year.

In order to “nail” Trump on Ukraine, it is necessary to fully expose the depth of administration complicity and the range of administration malfeasance. Even if this is considered sufficient for articles of impeachment and a credible Senate trial, this will take time, so that the case before the American public is powerful, and so that all who are complicit in political malpractice be held to account.

This relates to the second reason to slow down: because if we imagine that the Ukrainian “smoking gun” will generate revelations sufficient to bring Trump down, we must also consider what that would mean: the elevation of Mike Pence to the presidency. And here’s the thing: Pence too seems thoroughly implicated in Trump’s extortionist dealings with Ukraine, and in much else as well. And it would be foolish to focus all public attention on Trump’s malfeasance if the effect of doing so is to obscure the malfeasance of his Vice President and constitutionally-prescribed successor.

So, even with regard to Ukraine, it is necessary to go deep and wide with an impeachment inquiry and, within the limits of constitutional law, to focus attention on both Trump and Pence, and put an end to Pence’s cynical-obsequious public posture, as a man who does Trump’s despicable bidding and at the same time poses as someone of “virtue” and “righteousness.”

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It will take time and effort to bring the entire Trump administration, including Trump and his possible-successor Pence, to account.

But the real reason to take the time and effort is not so as to seek to use the impeachment process to constitutionally remove both Trump and Pence from office. It is because the impeachment process is, in the end, unlikely to bring down either Trump or Pence. And so this process, while constitutionally justified, must be conceived in more broadly political terms, as part of a strategy of exposing this corrupt and despotic president so he can be decisively defeated at the polls in 2020.

If the Democrats’ purpose is simply to expeditiously bring Trump to trial in the Senate, they probably shouldn’t waste their time. For there will be no fair trial in the Senate. There may be nothing but a pro forma trial. For while the Constitution gives the House the power to deliberate about and then impeach a president, and to establish the procedures for such action, it gives to the Senate the power to organize an impeachment trial. Is there any reason to imagine that Mitch McConnell and his team of Trump-enablers will allow for a serious public hearing of, and a serious deliberation about, the charges against this president? No. Even a Senate trial “fairly” administered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, as the Constitution prescribes, is likely to be a very rushed and pro forma affair. And it is even more likely to end with a vote in which the Senate Republican majority votes to acquit Trump of all charges.

And this is why the “easy” way to impeach is the wrong way. For it allows Trump to potentially put this all behind him too quickly, to claim vindication, and then to move on.

Trump must not be allowed to do this. He must be held to account, very publicly through hearings and exposures, and then politically at the polls.

There is no reason to limit this accountability to “Ukraine.” For while the Mueller Report and Mueller’s testimony was a botched opportunity, everything documented in the report and the testimony is true, damning, and clearly related to the current “Ukraine” scandal.

There is no good reason to let Trump off the hook, yet again, for those politically criminal acts of collusion and obstruction. There is no reason to let him off the hook for his violations of the Emoluments clause, or his bogus “national emergency,” or even his manifest negligence.

Trump deserves to be called to account for all of his assaults on constitutional democracy. And U.S. citizens deserve to be educated about the extent of Trump’s depredations, so that at least a strong majority of them can exercise their political responsibility and help to restore what is left of the rule of law.

The impeachment is now on. It must be deliberate and focused. It must be properly scheduled with the political calendar in 2020 in mind. It should not drag on, or be boring, or be an occasion for Congressional grandstanding. But it must be comprehensive, and it must be relentless, and this means it must be sustained. Not rushed. This is the only way to maximize the chance that political justice will truly be served. For House Democrats to rush self-righteous if justified impeachment charges to the Senate and then place judgment in the hands of Mitch McConnell and his followers is insanity. McConnell will have his chance to obstruct. And obstruct he most likely will do. But when he does, it must be in the face of an avalanche of powerful and publicly presented evidence, so that he and his party can be exposed for the bootlickers that they are, and so that the two third of the country that is not part of the Trump cult of personality can move forward to punish the Republicans at the ballot box, and to begin the challenging struggle to revitalize democracy.

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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