As someone who believes President Donald Trump deserves to be impeached, I can also say this: The Democrats have blown it in making the case against him.
As a reporter I covered the last impeachment of a president, in 1998 of Bill Clinton. It sure feels to me the Democrats have made the same mistake this time that the Republicans made back then.
Which is: The case is just too small.
Guilt is not an issue. Both presidents did it — Clinton lied under oath about sex back then, just as Trump obviously attempted to leverage a foreign country into investigating a political rival today.
But the problem Republicans ran into in the ‘90s was that the public felt the punishment didn’t match the crime. Polls then showed a hefty 79 percent of the public agreed Clinton was guilty. But the gravity of lying about consensual sex was too slight, too thin, to merit dumping him from office.
Democrats have a similar scale problem here. Trump did it — or more accurately, he tried to do it. He’s incorrigible about it, too. So he won’t have a smidgen of hesitation about abusing his office again if it means gaining some personal advantage.
But because the Trump impeachment case has been so tightly confined to this one episode with Ukraine, it has lowered the stakes. It all but invites a shrug: Ukraine got its aid eventually, and they aren’t investigating rival Joe Biden’s son anyway, so … whatever. Public support for ousting Trump is about 50-50 and hasn’t much budged in months.
I suspect there’s nothing Democrats could argue that would move Senate Republicans to remove Trump anyway. So the point of this entire exercise should have been to make the best argument possible for why he’s unfit for office. But Democrats left out too much of the story.
They should have focused on three separate abuses of power by Trump. All of them are impeachable not because they are crimes necessarily, but because, as Alexander Hamilton put it, they’re “injuries done immediately to the society itself.” They’re violations of the public trust, which is exactly what impeachment is for. And as we like to say in journalism, three makes it a trend.
The first is that when the Russians were meddling in the 2016 election and offering up dirt on Trump’s political opponent, his campaign welcomed it.
The Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” and it “welcomed” this help — that’s how independent counsel Robert Mueller put it in his report. Not criminal, maybe, but definitely impeachable. (And yes, you can be impeached for acts committed before entering office — it happened to a judge as recently as 2010.)
The second episode was when Trump directed his personal attorney to buy the silences of a porn star and a Playboy bunny, again in an attempt to swing the last election. This one was criminal — the attorney is serving a prison sentence for it as we speak. There’s also plenty of hard evidence, such as phone recordings, eyewitness accounts and copies of the checks.
The last one is Ukraine.
The common thread is simple. Three times Trump tossed aside the norms, laws or interests of the nation to benefit himself. Three times he also either lied or obstructed an investigation after being caught.
That’s the stronger case — that Trump is unfit to be president because what matters to him most is self-dealing. His self-interest is so potent he’s already flouted both campaign laws and national security. It’s Trump uber alles. Leaving him in office virtually guarantees more of the same.
How do we know this? Because he just tried more of the same, in October, when he gifted the G-7 international summit to his own resort. That also was probably an impeachable offense — a subverting of both government clean contracting rules and the U.S. constitutional provision against officeholders profiting from foreign governments. It’s moot now because he withdrew it after withering criticism. But who can doubt we’re due for more of this pattern if we leave him be?
The House is expected to impeach Trump on Wednesday, and it’s right to do so regardless of what happens in a Senate trial. But the effort is falling flat not because it’s a “vicious crusade” worse than the Salem witch trials, as Trump complained Tuesday. It’s because it doesn’t go far enough.
Politics in the end is about narratives, about telling a big story. Trump sure gets that. The Democrats left too much out of this one to really make it stick.