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Why Congress Should Commence An Impeachment Inquiry

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Why Congress Should Commence An Impeachment Inquiry

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Donald Trump is no longer just a persistent object of national shame and revulsion. He has become a threat to the Constitution and the rule of law. And the question before the House, quite literally, is what to do about him.

For understandable reasons, the Democratic leadership in Congress has been reluctant to answer Trump’s lawless conduct with impeachment, as the founders clearly prescribed. Speaker Nancy Pelosi warns that attempting to remove a duly elected president, even one who lost the popular vote, will be divisive and perhaps unpopular.  She worries that “overreaching” by Democrats will rebound on them politically, as the Clinton impeachment boomeranged on Republicans in the 1998 midterm election.

And Pelosi warns that the Senate, dominated by the president’s own party, almost certainly would refuse to convict Trump in an impeachment trial, no matter what damning evidence emerges against him. Unlike the Republicans of a bygone era, that party’s present leaders will do nothing to discipline a lawless president, so long as he advances their desire to maintain power. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who may understand the alarming truth in the Mueller Report but won’t stand up to Trump, is a perfect example. Highlighting Romney’s spineless servility by contrast is Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), a maverick conservative who has urged impeachment.

Neither Pelosi nor her concerns can be dismissed lightly. But the argument for opening an impeachment inquiry is more compelling every day, as Trump abrogates the constitutional order to conceal his crimes. A moment is rapidly coming when the failure to confront him will render Congress politically inert.

Trump’s strategy, carried out by political appointees in the White House Office of Legal Counsel and Justice Department, is to obstruct every Congressional inquiry by refusing to provide any information or testimony. According to him and his lawyers, the president is essentially beyond oversight and above the law. They disregard every subpoena with authoritarian bravado. Appealing to courts to uphold the Constitution will take time, which is on Trump’s side.

Yet by officially opening an impeachment inquiry, Congress transforms itself from Trump’s beggar into an institution with enhanced authority to demand documents and summon witnesses immediately. It is Trump’s dictatorial misconduct that will force reluctant Democrats like Pelosi to use that power. That is their only chance to uphold the rule of law and the constitutional order.

The political consequences of an impeachment inquiry — not a premature vote to remove Trump, but a public inquest into his alleged offenses — may not be so dire anyway.  In an “open memo” on impeachment published by JustSecurity.org, President Clinton’s former aide Sidney Blumenthal shows that the most apt comparison is not the botched impeachment of his old boss, but the process that brought down Richard Nixon.

With polling data from those periods, Blumenthal demonstrates his point: Before impeachment, Clinton’s approval rating stood at 66 percent; his public approval never wavered and still stood at 66 percent when the Senate acquitted him. Nixon’s approval rating, as a newly re-elected president who had won 49 states, stood at 68 percent before the Watergate scandal blew up. But his ratings fell as the facts about his crimes emerged in Congressional hearings, although he was still above water politically when that process began. Only after a year of devastating public exposure, in the spring and summer of 1974, did public support for impeaching Nixon rise to the current level of public support for the impeachment of Trump.

Remember, Donald Trump is consistently the most unpopular president since modern polling began. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows approval of his presidency at 38 percent — and disapproval at 57 percent. The most recent reliable poll on impeachment, compiled by Reuters/Ipsos, shows 45 percent believe that Trump should be impeached now, with 42 percent opposed. Other polls show that a majority believes Trump has committed serious crimes, an opinion recently ratified by 900 former federal prosecutors who signed a letter saying that if the president were an ordinary citizen, the Mueller Report would have led to his indictment for obstruction of justice.

If the Democrats stand for anything, they must stand up for democracy against a would-be tyrant and his henchmen. The cost of doing the right thing may not be as high as they fear — and the risk of failing to do the right thing is already far too high and rising.

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Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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