Pelosi In a Bind As Momentum Grows on Impeachment

The House Minority leader wants to go slow on dumping Trump, while 58 House Democrats say the time has come.

Photo Credit: YouTube/Business Insider

The case for impeaching President Donald Trump is growing stronger.

“It's time for the American public to ponder the gravity and consequences of the scandal engulfing the White House,” writes CNN commentator Errol Louis. “We know Trump has been trying in every way possible to deny, delay or discredit efforts by the Justice Department to ferret out the connections between the administration and a hostile foreign power."

That’s why 58 House Democrats voted Wednesday in favor of opening debate over Rep. Al. Green's two articles of impeachment.

Or...

The case for impeachment is getting weaker.

“Since Robert Mueller became special counsel in May, the chances of the House of Representatives passing articles of impeachment—and the Senate ratifying them—have probably gone down, writes Peter Beinart in the Atlantic.

"Now is not the time to consider articles of impeachment,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi this week.

That's why 126 House Democrats, including Pelosi, voted against opening debate on impeachment

Politics vs. Morality

The difference flows from whether you view impeachment primarily as a moral proposition or a political calculation.

Rep. Green's articles of impeachment are a moral indictment, focusing on Trump's embrace of race-baiting and white supremacists. Green argues the impeachment clause does not require specifically criminal behavior. He does not mention Russia or machinations in the 2016 campaign as grounds for removal from office.

In moral terms, this case that Trump is unfit for office and a menace to democratic institutions, is indeed stronger than ever. 

And that's quite apart from the mounting evidence of criminality in the Trump entourage. Last week, Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russia's ambassador. The official plea papers signed by Flynn establish that he enlisted unnamed others in his effort to coordinate Russia's response to U.S. sanctions.

This week, Donald Trump Jr. encouraged suspicions that he has something to hide about his dealings with Russia when he declined to answer certain questions from the House Intelligence Committee.

The president’s son would not talk about the conversation he had with his father after the infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower where Russian emissaries came to offer help. Trump Jr. said the conversation was covered by attorney-client privilege because two attorneys listened in on the call. The claim is legally dubious.

Has the President Been Lying About Russia?

"Abundantly and frequently, and in just about every way," says Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “When he says to the country 'we don't know,' that's a lie. When he says 'we had no contacts with the Russians,' that's a lie. When his son says 'I had no contacts with Wikileaks,' that's a lie. When General Flynn said, 'I never discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador,' that was a lie. And unfortunately, the list goes on and on."

The founding fathers, who wrote the emolument clause banning gifts from foreign governments, would surely conclude that such deception qualifies as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that merit impeachment.

In purely political calculations, however, the case for impeachment is still not strong.

Impeachment is a political process, not a pocketbook issue, Pelosi notes. It doesn’t affect peoples' jobs, health, children or future prospects, all the things that determine how most people vote. She wants to frame the party’s message around policy differences that will resonate in the 2018 congressional elections. Focusing on impeachment, Pelosi says, will distract from the Democratic Party’s appeal.

Pelosi knows too that the odds of success are long. An impeachment vote today would still require 22 Republican votes, even if every Democrat voted yes. If Democrats take the House next fall—a big if—they could then pass articles of impeachment. “But ratifying those articles would require two-thirds of the Senate, which would probably require at least 15 Republican votes,” Beinart notes.

And an impeachment process voters view as a partisan witch-hunt may only wind up failing and making voters more sympathetic to the target, which is what happened to the Republicans’ failed effort to drive Bill Clinton from office in 1999.

Do Democrats want to do that favor for Trump?

Cultural Change

But politics and morality are not independent factors. They influence each other.

A month ago, the morality of sexual harassment complaints was not enough to drive a senator or congressman from office. Now it is. A cultural change—what was once tolerated is now intolerable—has transformed political behavior.

In 1974, partisan politics protected President Richard Nixon from impeachment until the White House tapes proved what he had long denied: that he had lied about the Watergate burglary from the beginning. Then impeachment and conviction became certain, and he resigned. New evidence—irrefutable proof of culpability—converted the unconverted.

Trump is vulnerable on both counts. America has a new moral consensus on sexual harassment and the special prosecutor is assembling a body of new facts.

The Republican Party is willing to defend the serial sexual offenders in its own ranks for the sake of short-term political advantage, but it cannot prevent the #MeToo movement from returning public attention to the numerous sexual harassment complaints against Trump. 

“There are 320 million people out there,” says Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) who has introduced an article of impeachment focusing on obstruction of justice. “When they hear the term ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ their reaction is, ‘Show me the crime.’

Cue the videotape of the eight women—no, make that 16 women—who say they were assaulted by Trump, which collectively describes criminal behavior. Trump's new and absurd claim that the Access Hollywood tape might not be authentic is a sign that the president himself recognizes that changing times require a new line of defense against his accusers.

All of which raises the question: If Republicans could impeach Bill Clinton for sexual predation, why can’t Democrats do the same with Trump? Six months ago, that was a weak argument politically. Today, it is much stronger.

And as the indictment of Flynn and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort indicates, new facts about Trump’s secret dealings with Russia are coming. So far, evidence that Trump committed a crime is not definitive. If and when Flynn and Manafort fill in the details about Trump’s role in their illicit activities, supporters of impeachment will have the evidence skeptics now demand. And if Trump responds (as I think he will) by firing Mueller or by pardoning friends and family, he will commit the sort of high crimes and misdemeanors that require impeachment.

Both morally and politically, the normalization of impeachment is proceeding, regardless of Nancy Pelosi's go-slow stance. Like most elected officials, Pelosi doesn't want to get too far out in front of the crowd.

Nor does she want to fall too far behind. Impeachment is now supported by 40 percent of Americans, according to a poll taken in October. When and where the voters lead on impeachment, Pelosi and the Democratic caucus will follow. And the direction the people are going on impeachment is clear.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. He is the author of The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press).

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