September 19, 2019
Jeff Hauser and Eleanor Eagan
Washington Monthly, September 19, 2019
After months of waiting, the House Judiciary Committee has finally voted to open an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. With that tedious “will-they-or-won’t-they” question out of the way, the logical next question is: can impeachment succeed? The answer is a resounding yes. But getting there will require a strategic reorientation away from a sluggish and legalistic examination of Trump’s offenses via recalcitrant witnesses and toward a broader consideration of how his systemic abuses of power have materially hurt regular people.
The continued reticence of so many Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to support impeachment is based on two premises. The first is that impeachment is modestly unpopular, which is true, so far as it goes. The second is the conventional wisdom that impeaching President Clinton backfired on House Republicans.
Look a little closer at the second contention, however, and it quickly falls apart. The case against Trump is vastly stronger than that against Clinton. While Clinton’s alleged crimes were largely committed in the interest of avoiding embarrassment, Trump’s represent clear abuses of power with malignant implications. The second flank of the argument—that impeaching Clinton “backfired” on Republicans—is more myth than reality. Republicans may have lost the House in the next election cycle, but Clinton’s impeachment was a nontrivial factor in Al Gore’s 2000 loss. Therefore, we join other observers in choosing to view this “example” as evidence in support of impeaching Trump.
But the polling argument is particularly short-sighted. Voters take cues from political leaders about how to react to political events. For months, the overwhelming cue on impeachment from Democratic leaders like Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden has been to stand down. This inhibition has created a negative feedback loop in which impeachment-phobic lawmakers convince voters not to support impeachment, and then point to lukewarm public support to justify their passivity. Rinse and repeat.
Five months after the release of the Mueller report, this message has pretty well stuck. After all, if the special counsel’s findings were so serious, they should have been acted on immediately, right? Much as a gourmet meal is never as good reheated, Democrats cannot expect to ignore evidence of impeachable conduct in the spring and have it be as fresh and tasty when zapped in the autumn. Just take a gander at this week’s House Judiciary hearing with Corey Lewandowski to see how unappetizing this fare has become.
While the Mueller report surely provided enough evidence to justify impeaching Trump on substantive grounds, hesitant lawmakers have largely drained it of much of its political force (and impeachment is an inherently political process).
To overcome this damage, impeachment backers will have to make opposition to impeachment untenable with voters, thereby short-circuiting the aforementioned negative feedback loop. That means focusing on the ways in which Trump’s corruption has made life harder and more dangerous for millions of Americans. In other words, impeachment should focus above all on his failure to carry out his constitutional duty under Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” By emphasizing how impeachment is relevant to the “kitchen-table” issues that keep regular people up at night—like low wages or exorbitant healthcare premiums—the House Judiciary Committee can inspire a swell of grassroots pressure that will give reluctant legislators no choice but to back the effort.
The issues tackled in Mueller’s report, like obstruction of justice, are removed from people’s day-to-day lives. Of course, there is nothing inherently insufficient with such a basis for impeachment; were it not for the Democratic leadership’s opposition, impeachment proceedings would have begun in April. Still, more Americans agonize over how to pay back their student loans, or whether to incur the costs of seeing a doctor when uninsured, than discuss “the role of law.” The Mueller report, therefore. likely strikes most Americans as “political” and is less likely to inspire new broad-based support for impeachment.
The same goes for the proposed lines of inquiry in Judiciary’s newly expanded investigations. The committee will reportedly examine Trump’s alleged abuse of presidential pardons, hush-money payments, and use of office for personal enrichment. While these scandals are undoubtedly important, they don’t penetrate the lives of ordinary people.
That doesn’t mean that Democrats should not pursue any of these alleged crimes; the public deserves to know as much as possible about any president’s corruption, and Congress is best suited to furnish those answers. But these matters should not sit alone at the center of the Democrats’ case for impeachment. An impeachment inquiry is a way to control the national conversation. While bills passed by House Democrats predictably get little attention from most of the media, an impeachment hearing is guaranteed to achieve the scarcest political resource in 2019—the attention of voters.
Given that platform, lawmakers have a lot to choose from. In light of recent revelations that the number of uninsured people has risen for the first time since 2009, lawmakers might want to start by investigating how Trump has undermined the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
You might say that Trump’s health care moves are reprehensible, but are they really impeachable? Ask Thaddeus Stevens, the Pennsylvania representative who was the catalyst behind Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and the author of an article of impeachment accusing Johnson of failing to “take care” that the Tenure of Office Act be faithfully executed. Other articles accused Johnson of offenses including insulting Congress and unlawfully firing his Secretary of War, but this one got at his most serious transgression: failing to honor and enforce the laws as Congress had intended.
Trump has made no secret of his disdain for Obama’s healthcare law, but whether he likes it or not, it’s his duty to administer it unless and until Congress passes a new one or repeals it. Rather than faithfully carrying out that responsibility, Trump has sought to destroy the law. On his first day in office, he signed an executive order directing agencies to use all of the tools at their disposal to undermine the statute—and they have faithfully complied. His administration also shortened the open enrollment period, cut ACA’s advertising budget, and slashed tax credits for enrollees. Trump is not coy about his intentions. “I have just about ended Obamacare,” he once said. Congress should demonstrate its commitment to improving Americans’ health care access by nailing Trump for his considerable efforts to “end” a lawful program by executive action that he could not repeal legislatively.
There are other matters that need a deeper probe. Lawmakers should investigate whether Trump’s administration has intentionally slowed the allocation of aid to Puerto Rico. Last week, as Puerto Ricans braced for Hurricane Dorian’s potential landfall, many did so without a proper roof over their heads, surrounded by many other reminders of Hurricane Maria’s destruction. This hardly seems like an accident: two years after Maria, the scandal-riddled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has only approved funding for nine projects out of 10,000 applications. Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, the executive branch is holding up a Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) headed for the U.S. territory. The administration’s refusal to effectively administer this recovery aid is not some distant problem. Puerto Ricans (including the diaspora living in Florida and elsewhere on the U.S. mainland) feel it every day in the way of destroyed roads, damaged schools, the lack of a proper roof over many of their heads, or having been forced to leave the island altogether.
It seems impossible to imagine that Trump’s failure “to take care” is unrelated to the animus he has shown toward Latinx communities since the day he announced his presidential campaign. More broadly, it is even harder to argue that a president can faithfully execute the law under our Constitution when he openly views the government’s obligations to people as dependent on their race or religion—as his “Muslim ban” makes evidently clear.
Lawmakers should also look into Trump’s decision to allow three unconfirmed, unqualified, Mar-a-Lago members to essentially run the Department of Veterans’ Affairs from the resort. Has Trump’s reliance on his paying customers to run the VA in any way hurt the millions of veterans who rely on the department’s services each year? The public has a right to know. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs opened an investigation into these puppeteers last winter, but the administration’s stonewalling appears to have hindered meaningful progress.
Trump’s appointees have harmed regular people in myriad other ways. Take, for example, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ failure to administer loan forgiveness programs, even after having been ordered by a court to do so. That has left thousands of people suffering under the crushing yoke of student loans they were promised would be discharged. At the same time, her department’s laughable oversight of loan servicers is delaying forgiveness for hundreds of thousands more. Given her absolute disregard for her responsibilities as Education Secretary, why has she not been removed? Quite clearly, Trump feels no compunction about running afoul of his obligation to “take care” to execute the law, even if that means flat out ignoring court orders.
House members must not only persuade voters to embrace impeachment with the righteousness of their case, but also with the urgency of their actions. That means issuing subpoenas far more liberally—and suing when necessary to enforce them without delay. Indeed, the fact that Trump admits “we are fighting all the subpoenas” reflects acknowledgement that he is undermining Congressional oversight, which was itself a key element of the third article of impeachment against Richard Nixon.
Basic political horse sense suggests that investigating how Trump’s team is hiding evidence of their alleged lawlessness would help generate attention to the actions they are covering up. If pursued effectively, such a probe can impose a steep political cost.
Ultimately, Congress should view its investigatory scope broadly. It should vigorously examine as many instances of Trump’s corruption as possible. But his crimes against the American people should sit at the center of their effort.
To treat them as secondary, as lawmakers have done thus far, misses the larger point. The intentional harm Trump has inflicted on Americans, whom he is tasked with protecting, represents by far his most egregious violation of his Constitutional oath of office. Lawmakers should respond accordingly.
Jeff Hauser is the founder and executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Eleanor Eagan is a Research Assistant at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.