As the nation shut its copies of the Mueller report this past April and sighed, pondering with renewed clarity the vicious character of the man in the oval office, the question on every Democrat’s mind was, “Do we impeach?” Even weeks after Speaker Nancy Pelosi cautioned against pursuing impeachment due to the unfavorable effect such proceedings would have on Democratic chances in the 2020 election, the question of impeachment has lingered and even gained momentum. After all, no president since Nixon has been more worthy of the charge of obstruction of justice than Trump. In an open letter signed by over 800 former federal prosecutors, the DOJ alumni wrote, “each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”
For Democrats who are suddenly waking up to a post-Mueller Report world that is not just still Trumpian, but somehow more Trumpian, the sense of indignation is nearly all-consuming. Where is the impeachment hearing that Democrats were promised every week by late-night pundits for the past two years? Where is the made-for-TV moment when Mueller reveals in front of a packed court that Trump is actually a Russian spy after all? Despite what Pelosi would prefer, the question for many Democrats is not “do we impeach” but, “when do we impeach?”
The president himself has already completed his victory laps at campaign rallies across the country, declaring that the report totally exonerates him. In early May, a day after AG William Barr decided to follow Trump’s orders and not show up to a hearing with the House Judiciary Committee, the president was on the phone with Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office. One can just imagine Trump laughing and slapping his knee, saying, “See daddy- er, I mean - Vladdy! Can I call you Vladdy? No, of course not. Well, what’d I tell ya? No collusion, right? HA!” According to Trump, Putin was just as thrilled with the result, saying, “it started up as a mountain and ended up as a mouse.”
Now, less than a month after the release of the report, America is clearly entering the greatest stress test to our democratic system since Watergate. Following AG William Barr’s no-show, the House Judiciary Committee recommended holding Barr in contempt of Congress, and Representative Jerrod Nadler declared that the country is in a constitutional crisis. Speaker Pelosi agreed shortly after. That might be hyperbolic, but only slightly. The system is stressed, and the stress comes from the fact that there is no effective way for Congress to enforce its subpoena power over the executive branch. The case will likely go to court where the judicial branch will be asked to weigh in on the matter and decide whether to find AG Barr in contempt or not. But of course, Trump loves going to court. He is an expert in dealing with the court system, and he will likely use the court system to stall for time. Litigation of this sort can take months or years. Worryingly, Trump could conceivably run the clock until the next election, at which point, the entire undertaking will be moot.
For those Democrats who favor impeachment, these subpoenas and court battles are just more evidence that the House Democrats are not willing to act on their duties. Never mind that impeachment is almost certain to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate. The House Democrats have a duty to impeach, the pro-impeachers say, whether it is successful or not. Never mind that impeachment is a political tool to be wielded if and when it is useful, not a cold mechanistic process like a judicial trial that pro-impeachers are so desperate for. The House Democrats should impeach in order to have a record for the history books of who voted for and against impeachment, they say. Never mind that impeachment would bring VP Pence into the presidency, who is arguably worse than Trump for achieving progressive policy goals. Policy goals be damned, they say, Trump is an autocrat hell-bent on destroying our democratic system, and we must have him removed immediately. Never mind that, as Pelosi and many liberals argue, the realpolitik analysis of the situation shows that impeachment will likely hurt the Democrats in 2020. The pro-impeachment faction replies that impeachment has rising support and now more Americans favor it than oppose it according to recent polling data. And even from a realpolitik point of view, it's far from clear that the Republicans suffered from Clinton’s impeachment long-term. Sure, they suffered losses during the 1998 mid-terms at the height of the impeachment proceedings, but two years later, they won the presidency.
“To impeach or not to impeach?” The debate could go on almost infinitely. But we do not have an infinite amount of time. Tellingly, the focus of the discussion is almost invariably about the relationship between impeachment and the 2020 elections. And when the pro-impeachment and anti-impeachment factions finally collapse in exhaustion, one thing becomes obvious about the quandary Liberals are in — there are no good options. Democrats face a stark choice regarding the 2020 elections: either they pursue impeachment and risk hurting themselves in the polls, or they forego impeachment and risk missing their one shot at preventing an autocrat from making it impossible for our electoral system to elect anyone but himself. After all, as Sarah Kendzior and other journalists have been saying since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, autocrats are like cancers: the longer they are inside the system, the harder it is to get them out again. Not surprisingly, one of the main things autocrats hate most is fair elections. Sham elections are the foundation of illiberal democracies, and Trump has already begun messaging that the 2020 election will be a sham. He would love nothing more.
In the broad scheme of things, then, the impeachment debate is a distraction, just like the Mueller report was. The decision at hand is not really about impeachment, but about the 2020 election. Impeachment or no, the elections must be fair and legitimate, and the Democrats must win by a large enough margin that Trump can’t contest the results. Whether they impeach Trump or not will be of little consequence if the 2020 election is not justly administered. Unfair elections are a far greater threat than a missed opportunity for impeachment. Such a disaster would erode our fidelity in the Constitution and American democratic values. Already, in a scandalous break with campaign etiquette if not the law, Trump is sending his new fixer Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to dig up dirt on 2020 candidate Joe Biden’s son’s possible ties to some shady deals in that foreign land. “We’re not meddling in an election,” Giuliani said, “we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do.” So much for those federal laws prohibiting a candidates’ acceptance of anything of value from foreign nationals. One can only wonder if Putin recommended this move to Trump as an opening salvo in the coming assault on U.S. electoral norms during a giddy phone call.
Like the feeling that sweeps over a chess player who is losing, the Democrats are slowly realizing the urgency of the situation they are in. For years, they waited for Mueller to save them, and he did not. Now, as they ponder impeachment, the Democrats must stay focused on 2020. They must vigorously investigate the following puzzle or else risk entering the end game of American democracy next year: “How do we prevent our autocratic president from biasing our election system to favor himself, and how do we ensure that he peacefully transfers power to the next administration when he loses?”
That is the question.