By Frank Bowman
There’s a good deal of talk about whether Mr. Trump is purposely trying to goad Democrats into a formal impeachment investigation, on the theory that doing so poses little risk of ultimate conviction in the Republican-dominated Senate and is politically advantageous insofar as it enables him to paint himself as a victim and simultaneously divert attention from his substantive policy failures.
I had a talk with Greg Walters of Vice News on this subject, and he was kind enough to include a quote or two in his story on the subject, link here.
I have two basic reactions to this hypothesis, one constitutional and the other political.
On the constitutional score, it is hard to see how Congress (by which, in practice, we mean the House of Representatives) can avoid serious consideration of impeachment if the Trump Administration persists in its current blanket denial of cooperation with all requests for information from the House, regardless of subject, regardless of the originating committee, and regardless of whether the House merely asks politely or serves a subpoena. This posture of total resistance is without historical precedent. All presidents wrangle with Congress over information disclosure, but none has ever simply refused all cooperation. Trump’s current absolutist position, if left unchallenged, would establish a precedent essentially neutering congressional oversight and, in consequence, badly fracturing constitutional order. A presidency and an executive branch immune to question is an executive dictatorship in all but name.
The constitutional challenge presented by Trump’s maximalist intransigence leads toward impeachment in two ways.
First, the longer Trump persists in stonewalling all congressional requests, the more ominous — and obvious — the threat to basic separation of powers principles becomes. Thus, a total refusal of cooperation with congressional investigative authority can itself become impeachable conduct. At a certain point, although we may not yet be there, a formal impeachment inquiry becomes (or should become) an imperative for any Member of Congress committed to maintaining both the prerogatives of his or her own branch and a constitutional order centered on an independent and powerful legislature.
Second, as I wrote in Slate not long ago, congressional investigative power is at its strongest when that power is expressly asserted in aid of the impeachment power. Investigative authority in aid of Congress’s general oversight power is derivative of legislative power and is therefore conditional on legitimate legislative objectives. By contrast, the power to impeach is expressly and exclusively granted to Congress and necessarily implies the power to ascertain, from whatever source, the facts necessary to judge whether impeachable conduct has occurred. Both logic and the precedent of the Nixon era compel the conclusion that not even classified matters or the most intimate details of presidential consultation with his advisers are immune from disclosure in an impeachment inquiry. Thus, Congress strengthens its legal case for judicial compulsion of testimony and material withheld by the executive the moment it announces an impeachment investigation. A blanket presidential refusal to comply with all informational requests premised on oversight power almost compels Congress to invoke its impeachment authority.
The agonizingly tricky bit for constitutional patriots who also happen to be Democrats is that Trump may be right if he calculates that an impeachment contest is a political winner. The uncomfortable fact is that the general populace neither knows nor cares very much about constitutional balance. The electorate may even reward Trump in 2020 for being “tough” against a congress that nobody is very fond of.
And public disdain for and disinterest in an impeachment fight is likely to be particularly acute if Russia and the Mueller Report remain the focus of the contest. The Mueller Report did “exonerate” Trump on Russia to the extent that it found insufficient evidence of pre-election conspiracy. The public knows this and no careful explanation of why Trump’s behavior vis-a-vis Russia in 2016 remains profoundly troubling is going to dislodge that impression among either Trump supporters or the bulk of casual followers of political news.
As for the obstruction portion of Mueller’s report, it paints a shocking picture of presidential misconduct. Nonetheless, Mueller’s decision to end his report with a no-call, Barr’s choice to make his own call exonerating the president, and the resulting narrative that this was, at worst, a president blocking an investigation into what proved to be a non-crime are likely to deprive a long impeachment fight focused on obstruction of justice of much of its public bite. Just as the general public doesn’t know or care much about the constitutional niceties of checks and balances, it tends not to know or care very much about abstractions like prosecutorial independence, the rule of law, unitary executive theories of presidential power, and so forth.
Accordingly, if Democrats, whether for reasons of constitutional principle or partisan politics, feel compelled to proceed with a formal impeachment investigation, they would do well to broaden its scope beyond Mueller. Only if matters like emoluments violations, misuse of office or influence for private gain by the Trump family, connections with Russia not directly involving the 2016 election, destruction of the nation’s foreign policy and alliance structures, and pervasive dishonesty are added to the mix does an impeachment battle seem likely to prove politically advantageous.