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By Thomas Neuburger
Krystal Ball: This is the hill that Democratic leaders chose to die on?
A note about the coming and much-cheered impeachment of Donald Trump. Of course impeachment was always the right thing to do. But having waited so long to do it, and having chosen Joe Biden’s integrity as the hill to die on, the decision to impeach Donald Trump now may be a trap for Democrats — in fact, several of them.
If so, they did it to themselves. Let me explain.
First, impeachment is without doubt the right thing for Congress to do — or would have been when cause was first given for doing it. Impeachment is the correct and only constitutional tool the Founders gave the government for removing a president guilty of the kinds of official sins Donald Trump has been decried for since his inauguration. Impeachment is the Founders’ gift to a people that, just a few generations earlier, had seen the English Parliament use the only tool it had for removing a head of state — by removing the life from his body.
Impeachment is the Constitution’s version of the English Civil War, minus the war.
Congress could, and should, have have impeached Donald Trump in 2018, for example, when ICE was caught keeping immigrant children in cages, some of whom later died. He could, and should, have been impeached in 2017 when Puerto Rico was left, after Hurricane Maria had devastated the island, to fend for itself because it wasn’t white enough, Republican enough or American enough (Puerto Rico is a possession, not a state) to merit Trump-controlled federal relief.
Congress could have written articles of impeachment early in 2017, and should have, based on Trump’s violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. They could, if they chose, have written them decrying his repeated calls for rightwing violence, calls that started during the campaign.
They could have impeached Donald Trump in any year of his presidency for any number of harms. Instead they didn’t, saying as late as August 2019 in Nancy Pelosi’s words, “The public isn’t there on impeachment.”
In other words, the rightness of impeachment was never a consideration for Democratic Party leaders.
Democratic Leadership: Impeachment Is a Partisan Political Decision
Pelosi’s statement that “the public isn’t there” signals with no confusion that impeaching Donald Trump is viewed by Party leaders as a political choice and not a constitutional duty. It says that Party leaders see impeachment as a bare calculation in which the benefit to the Party — electoral victory — must be served before the benefit to the nation — of drawing a line in the sand saying, “No president should ever do this again” — is even considered.
If Democrats are this naked and open about saying that the act of impeachment, even of Donald Trump, is justified only if there’s a political benefit, why should the nation not say the same of them, that all they seek is a political benefit, just as nakedly and openly?
Of course Republicans will say that. But what will the larger nation think? What have Democratic leaders led them to think?
(Nancy Pelosi now asserts, of course, that her turnaround is principled, a result of Trump’s “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” But Ryan Grim of The Intercept offers plenty of evidence that part of what changed was the mood and politics of her House caucus and not her views on Congress’s constitutional duty.)
So that’s trap one, that the Party’s turnaround on impeachment both ismerely political and will be seen as political, since a principled position would have been acted on years ago. The nation needed better than that from Democratic leaders, needed them to act from a stronger, more defensible position. The nation didn’t get what it needed, and both Democrats and the nation may soon pay a price for their failure.
Is Joe Biden’s Integrity the Hill the Party Wants Die On?
The second trap is this, that the impeachment inquiry will be Joe Biden–specific — narrowly drawn around the four corners of Trump’s alleged attempt to get the president of Ukraine to help him find re-election dirt on one of his political rivals.
In other words, none of the other matters mentioned above — the ICE detentions, the deaths of children and other detainees, the post-Maria destruction-by-inaction of Puerto Rico, or any of a hundred other destructive deeds (remember the Muslim ban?) — will figure into the inquiry or the articles of impeachment the House will vote on. None of those principles of presidential behavior will be adjudicated.
Instead, the entire drama will turn on two questions only: Did Donald Trump attempt to blackmail the government of Ukraine into aiding his re-election campaign? Did Joe Biden, as President Obama’s VP, blackmail the government of Ukraine into feathering his son’s nest, or keeping it feathered?
Both questions will be examined — endlessly — before the public in the next few months. Those questions and only those.
About the first, though the evidence is not yet in, it’s likely true that Trump did indeed attempt to bully the president of Ukraine into helping his campaign. Even Reason magazine has its doubts about Trump’s innocence.
But if so, is that electoral use of “a foreign power,” though more brutish and overt, different in kind than any of the other intrusions-by-invitation into our electoral process?
For one, the Fusion GPS material was developed with the aid of assets or ex-assets (is there a difference?) of British intelligence and deployed by the Clinton campaign before it was deployed by the FBI. Further, I’d be shocked if Israel and Saudi Arabia hasn’t helped a number of our electoral campaigns, given the money and geopolitical power at stake in these elections, their ties to leaders of both parties, and the financial and intelligence assets available to do the work.
That’s one part of the discussion the Party and the nation are headed for. Buckle up.
The other discussion will be around Biden’s actual dealings with the Ukraine government as Obama’s VP, actions which were sanctioned, let’s not forget, by President Obama himself.
Were Biden’s dealings corrupt? Again, the evidence is not in.
The Hill’s John Solomon, who it must be added leans decidedly right, has written that he was told by several Ukrainian law enforcement officials, including a deputy head in the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office, that they have “[f]inancial records showing a Ukrainian natural gas company routed more than $3 million to American accounts tied to Hunter Biden, younger son of then-Vice President Joe Biden, who managed U.S.-Ukraine relations for the Obama administration”.
On the other hand, Lanny Davis, who it must be added leans decidedly centrist, has written that he “couldn’t find a single fact in the [Washington] Post story about anything improper by Hunter Biden due to his service on the Burisma board, much less anything criminal.”
If there’s no smoking gun in the Biden-Ukraine case, is that evidence of innocence when the facts of the case suggest on their surface otherwise? After all, did Hunter Biden not receive a great deal of money for being on the Burisma board? Is he not Joe Biden’s son? Was the prosecutor, corrupt as he may be, not investigating Burisma? And is this not part of a pattern of suspicion about the Biden family in general?
“We’ve got people all around the world who want to invest in Joe Biden,” said Biden’s brother James according to this Politico story about how the Biden family cashes in on their well-placed relative.
That’s the other part of the discussion the Party and the nation are in for. Buckle up twice.
Two Traps for the Party as the Next Election Looms
These are the discussions the Democratic Party’s belated decision, and its reason for delaying it, will spawn. If Trump was always this corrupt, why now? What does that say about the principles that drive Democratic Party leadership?
If Biden is innocent of corruption, why does it look like he’s not? What does that say about the nature of corruption itself in the entire DC establishment?
Two traps for a party that much of the nation depends on to rid them of the man the last election elevated to power. Two reasons for independent voters — those not Party loyalists, not blue-no-matter-who, not Never-Trumpers, voters who never turn out for elections or rarely do — to not turn out for this one, when their voice and vote is needed most in this greatest of watershed years.
What’s decided now, in this year and the next, will set the course of the nation and the world for a dozen years to come — or a dozen millennia if the chaos predicted by the most pessimistic among us takes root and grows. After all, social and political chaos is a breeding ground for authoritarian “solutions.” We don’t need any of those, and this may be the last electoral chance to avoid them.
The nation needs the Democratic Party to be on top of its game, not behind every eight ball it can find — and certainly not stumbling into pits and traps its leaders have created to catch only themselves.