OP-ED: Impeachment is on. That’s a win for democracy

Jonathan Bernstein
Bloomberg News (TNS)
FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2018 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in Indianapolis. An AP-NORC Center poll released on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, finds Americans are most unhappy with Trump on his handling of climate change. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Tuesday was a good day for the Constitution and U.S. democracy. Democrats, moving forward on impeachment, seemed to be interested in the rule of law and not just partisanship, and many Republicans are at least for now acting as if they are interested in the evidence against President Donald Trump.

But with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ending Tuesday with a very brief announcement of a formal impeachment inquiry, there are still more questions than answers about how the process is going to work.

The day was full of important developments that need sorting out:

  • Trump announced that he would release a full transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which he brought up largely discredited accusations against his leading potential 2020 Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
  • House Democrats insisted, correctly, on receiving the complaint by an anonymous intelligence-agency whistleblower that first called attention to the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call, and which reportedly goes well beyond the particulars of that conversation. They’ve scheduled a vote on the House floor Wednesday demanding it.
  • The Senate passed a similar resolution by a voice vote asking for the whistleblower complaint, without Republican opposition.
  • The House set a Thursday deadline for receiving the whistleblower’s complaint.
  • House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said that the whistleblower is ready to testify to Congress.
  • Senate Republicans remained relatively quiet about the scandal, using words like “premature” to describe Pelosi’s impeachment announcement. But articles in conservative media said that Republicans could be swayed by new evidence.
  • Many Democrats who had been wary about going ahead with impeachment said they were ready to proceed, especially if Trump tries to block their access to evidence.

More:Transcript: Trump prodded Ukraine leader on Biden claims

More:Pelosi orders impeachment probe: 'No one is above the law'

More:Smucker, Perry blast Dems' impeachment probe

More:Administration blocks ‘urgent’ whistleblower disclosure

Pelosi’s announcement gave only vague guidelines for what happens next. She is asking six relevant House committees to put together their “best cases” for impeachment and send them to the Judiciary Committee, which will then presumably distill them into articles of impeachment and pass them along to the full House for a vote.

Pelosi made no mention of any House vote to formally open an impeachment inquiry or to provide any additional resources or authorities to the committees as they do their work — perhaps because she and the committee chairs do not believe they need one. She didn’t say whether the six committees would hold hearings to make their cases publicly. She didn’t say whether any such hearings, if there are any, would be held under special rules designed for the impeachment process.

She didn’t say anything about a timeline, including whether the committees would have a deadline for forwarding their findings to the Judiciary Committee. She didn’t say anything about how the process would be coordinated with House efforts in the courts and elsewhere to force administration compliance with House oversight, and now with the impeachment inquiry.

What we do know is that the six-committee procedure means that House Democrats are not focusing narrowly on the question of whether Trump solicited Ukrainian help attacking Biden and whether his acknowledged withholding of aid to that country was linked to his discussion of Biden with Zelenskiy. We don’t know what else they’ll scrutinize, but at this point everything is fair game — conflicts of interest, payments by foreign officials for the use of Trump properties in potential violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against receiving emoluments from foreign governments, obstruction of justice and other abuses of power.

That strikes me as the correct choice. Some pundits are speculating about why the Ukraine story produced such a large reaction while other stories didn’t — notably the connections between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. But I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. What’s more likely is that it’s all cumulative.

The truth is that all presidents, from George Washington through Barack Obama, have done things that are arguably contrary to their oath of office. But what distinguished Richard Nixon from the rest, and led to the articles of impeachment that would have removed him from power in 1974 if he hadn’t resigned first, was how many different ways he abused power; the extent to which he refused to respect the powers of all other actors in the political system; and the sense among all those involved in government that he could not be trusted to tell the truth.

Trump approached Nixonian levels of all those things early in his presidency. The whistleblower’s revelations have mushroomed into a scandal that goes even further.

That doesn’t mean that he’ll be removed from office. There are strong partisan incentives for Republicans to stick with their president, and they still probably will overwhelm the case for impeachment that Trump keeps making against himself. It’s quite possible that if the House does approve articles of impeachment, the resulting Senate trial will be held under rules designed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to focus on wild and discredited theories of misbehavior by Biden or whomever seems the most likely Democratic presidential nominee at that point.

But maybe not.

The outcome will be driven by some combination of public opinion, choices by party actors and the actual evidence that emerges (yes, cynics, that will actually matter). We know enough now to be able to say that there’s evidence of legitimately impeachable actions — from the obstruction of justice evidence laid out in the April report on Russian interference by former Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller to the failure to comply with the constitutional emoluments clauses to Trump’s admission that he brought up Biden in a call with the Ukrainian president. But that still leaves a lot of unknowns.

Beginning with whether the administration delivers the whistleblower complaint by Thursday or not.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.