Here's what Ben Franklin teaches us about impeaching Donald Trump
Like Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin is one of those great Americans to whom sparkling aphorisms are attributed that may or may not be true. The Internet has only made matters worse.
A favorite quote, which I always assumed was Franklin’s, appears not to be, at least as far as I can tell. I made a cursory and unsuccessful Google search of various editions of his famous Poor Richard’s Almanack and the later Poor Richard Improved, but even my pedantic wonkishness can only go so far. I finally gave up.
The quote in question: “Never confuse motion with action."
No matter its provenance, it is a true thing that especially would seem to apply to our welcome but foot-dragging Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
As they fret and fuss as to whether or not to impeach the imperial bedlamite, semblances of motion seem to hold the upper hand over action. Hearings are held but slowly, and requests and subpoenas for documents and witnesses are issued on a steady basis but largely ignored by the White House and a Justice Department that has been turned by Trump and Attorney General Barr into the president’s personal Jacoby & Meyers, with Barr acting as mob consigliere.
Historian Julian Zelizer notes in an analysis at CNN that he fears, “With the decentralized oversight hearings by House Democrats tied up in legal knots, the media will just end up shifting to the administration's probable investigations into law enforcement and intelligence agencies.”
(On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee announced it will hold a hearing June 10entitled “Lessons from the Mueller Report: Presidential Obstruction and Other Crimes” that will include former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean “as well as former U.S. Attorneys and legal experts.” On the one hand, I could watch MSNBC just about any night and see the same witnesses. On the other, so many people still have no idea what Mueller reported so maybe this is better than nothing?)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic leadership worry about how a House impeachment—without a conviction because of the GOP senators’ pet-like obsequiousness—will impact the party’s 2020 election chances. But in part their concern is based on beliefs and principles that were thrown under the trolley by the Trump gang long ago.
As David Atkins wrote at Washington Monthly last week, “In the Trump era, when the guard rails against an unbalanced despotic executive are rapidly failing and every battle is being waged not within the guidelines of institutional laws and norms but in the court of public opinion, it is crucial that every player understand and participate in the game that is being played…
“…The Founders made a forgivable error in assuming that the prerogatives of each branch of government would overwhelm partisan corruption by giving Congress the power to hold a lawless executive accountable. But in the modern era, it is obvious that only a very public airing of a president’s crimes would put enough pressure on congressional members of his own party to convict and remove him from office."
Further, many Dems argue that public opinion just isn’t solid enough in favor of impeachment for it to proceed right now. But as many have noted and I recently wrote, “Go back to June 1973, a year after the Watergate break-in and a month or so into the now famous Senate Watergate hearings (just as John Dean was about to tell the committee that he advised Nixon there existed ‘a cancer growing on the presidency’). At that point, per a Gallup poll at the time, only 19 percent of Americans sought Nixon’s impeachment; in other words, just half of those who favor it now. Within months, as hearings publicized Nixon’s wrongdoings and the Saturday Night Massacre appalled the public, that number had doubled.”
Julian Zelizer observed to Greg Sargent of The Washington Post that when the House moved against Nixon in 1974, it “wasn’t Congress waiting on the public. It was the other way around – Congress provided guidance to the public.”
On impeachment, Sargent writes, “public opinion can be moved in a big way, including, presumably, on Trump.” But, “The bottom line is that insisting that even an impeachment inquiry can’t happen until Republicans support one might be tantamount to giving Republican intransigence — and Trump’s disinformation network — total veto power over whether our political system ever even considers the question of whether Trump’s corruption and misconduct amount to the high crimes and misdemeanors that merit removal.”
(Note, by the way, that the third article of impeachment voted by the House Judiciary Committee against Nixon in 1974 was for his refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas.)
I confess that I keep going back and forth on the issue of impeachment, too, having been adamantly in favor just a couple of weeks ago yet in subsequent days occasionally swayed by the arguments against. But as Zelizer writes in his CNN analysis, “If they refuse to undertake impeachment proceedings, the President will continue to claim the Mueller investigation was a two-year witch hunt -- and that ultimately House Democrats reached the same conclusion.
“… A House vote in favor of articles of impeachment would not inevitably benefit the President, as some Democrats have been arguing. The likely revelation of more possible abuses of power as a result of impeachment proceedings, along with the extensive findings in the Mueller report, could easily drag down his already low approval ratings. Under an impeachment process, the House Judiciary Committee would have greater leverage in the courts to obtain documents and testimony, while administration members would be at greater risk if they continued to stonewall.”
Trump’s disregard of the law and all democratic principles cannot be ignored. On Tuesday morning, the latest obstruction occurred as the White House ordered former staffer Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson, former White House counsel Donald McGahn’s chief of staff, not to comply with subpoenas from the House Judiciary Committee.
As Benjamin Franklin also may—or may not!—have said, “It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright,” so Trump tries to fill that sack not with the needed character and ability Franklin’s words imply but with lies and accusations, one calumny after another, using each abuse as an attempt to bolster support and flood the field with deception.
Therefore I’ve come to finally and firmly believe it’s past time for the impeachment inquiry to begin. Call witnesses—send out the Federal marshals to haul in the recalcitrant—fill the public’s eyes and ears with information, tell the story each and every day, explain to them the Mueller report’s findings—insist that Mueller testify—and take the preliminary steps toward a formal impeachment.
This won’t happen overnight, so no fear; clearly there won’t be a rush to judgment. Nor will the other issues of the day be ignored. And, yes, there is plenty of other legal activity against Trump slowly grinding through the mills of the courts. But as far as the House goes, it’s time for action, not merely motion.
Perhaps it would be best to create a select committee with daily televised hearings, much like the Senate Watergate committee, which wisely had only seven members and delegated much of the questioning to qualified attorneys who could help vector in on the truth without the preening self-promotion of politicians.
Someone has to bell this cat and right now, House of Representatives, we’re looking to you.