The case for impeaching Trump—and fast

Matthew Yglesias
Key Points
  • Trump's case for impeachment is 'highly Nixonian.'
  • Trump is charged with misconduct that is serious and directly relevant to his public office.
  • Trump handed the smoking gun to Lester Holt.
How to impeach the President of the United States

Impeachment of an American president is a weighty measure that's only been used a handful of times in our history. And on two of those occasions, the judgment of history has come down against the impeachers.

Andrew Johnson was an awful president, but the move by Radical Republicans in Congress to remove him from office reeked from top to bottom of an effort to resolve a policy dispute by ginning up a legal one — passing a law to bar Johnson from firing Cabinet secretaries and them impeaching him for breaking it. Bill Clinton's impeachment, if anything, suffered from the opposite problem. The charges against him, even if you believed them, simply seemed to have too little to do with the duties and responsibilities of his high office. Republicans had hoped a sex scandal would damage Clinton's approval ratings, it didn't really, and then they went berserk.

The exception that proves the rule is Richard Nixon, whose misdeeds were legitimately "high crimes." Nixon also went down at a period in American history when the ideological polarization of the parties was low — some of his staunchest policy allies were conservative Southern Democrats, while some liberal Republicans were sharp critics of his administration. His downfall represents a kind of founding myth of modern American civic culture, complete with a Robert Redford movie that reserves a key heroic role for conservative icon Barry Goldwater.

The question that faces Congress today is whether the Trump case is more like Nixon or closer to Clinton or Johnson. And the answer is that it's a highly Nixonian situation. Donald Trump is charged with misconduct that is serious and directly relevant to his public office but that isn't simply a reiteration of longstanding ideological disagreements in American life.

The impeachment tool is somewhat clumsy and rarely used, in part because of how clumsy it is. It's not so much that presidential misconduct is rare as that replacing the incumbent president of the United States with his hand-picked vice president is rarely a reasonable remedy for anything controversial and significant. But it's ideally suited to the particular moment in which the country now finds itself. Democrats have enormous disagreements with Mike Pence, but those disagreements are fundamentally unrelated to the core of Trump's obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and financial conflicts of interest — for now, at least.

In Trump's case, there's no need for extensive litigation over a secret tape because the smoking gun already aired in the form of an interview with NBC News's Lester Holt.

It seems natural to expect that a successful impeachment would follow the Watergate template — the special prosecutor, the investigative reporting, the congressional select committee, the claims of executive privilege, the litigation, all unfolding over a period of years. But the winds of fate have dealt us a different hand, and the smoking gun is already in our possession.

Trump should be impeached. Now.

Trump handed the smoking gun to Lester Holt

Watergate began with clear evidence of what was clearly a crime — the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters — which then led to an investigation of who was involved, which led, eventually, to the discovery of a secret taping system inside the Oval Office. The quest to get the contents of the tape revealed to the public then became its own drama.

But when the tapes were finally heard they contained a "smoking gun" — clear evidence that Nixon had tried to use the powers of his office to stymie an FBI investigation. In the crucial conversation, Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to call in the CIA and tell them, "The president believes that [the investigation] is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah, because these people are plugging for, for keeps, and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don't go any further into this case, period!"

There it was. The question had been whether Nixon himself was engaged in the Watergate cover-up. That tape proved he was. And that was it. The Watergate saga took a long time, but two days after the tape was released, Republican congressional leaders went to the White House to tell Nixon it was over. Two days after that, Nixon resigned.

In Trump's case, there's no need for extensive litigation over a secret tape because the smoking gun already aired in the form of an interview with NBC News's Lester Holt, where Trump explained his reasons for firing Comey. Though his White House had said Comey was fired after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo concluding Comey's handling of the Clinton email case was indefensible, Trump, in a moment of admirable candor, explained that this wasn't true.

"In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself," Trump told Holt, "'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won."

A contemporaneous memo from Comey further confirms that Trump specifically asked him to stop investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Rosenstein confirmed Thursday to members of the United States Senate that Trump had already made up his mind to fire Comey before Rosenstein wrote the memo that the White House later briefly claimed was the basis for Comey's firing. Here, then, is the timeline, which is now publicly known, and widely accepted:

  • In February, President Trump met with FBI Director James Comey and asked Comey to drop investigations of Michael Flynn and tell the public that Trump's ties to Russia were not under investigation. Trump also repeatedly denounced the whole idea of an investigation in public statements and tweets.
  • In March, Comey clarified to Congress and the public that a very real, very serious, ongoing investigation was underway.
  • In April, Trump fired Comey. He put out an implausible pretext for the firing, and then quickly got bored with the thin deception and explained on national television that he really fired Comey because he was frustrated about the Russia situation.

That's the entirety of the case. Trump was meddling with an FBI investigation, he fired the FBI director when he wouldn't go along with it, then he lied about why he'd fired the FBI director, and then later he confessed the truth. That the facts have emerged so quickly is disorienting, but it shouldn't blind us to the basic reality that the whole saga has played out. And in terms of Trump's basic unfitness to continue in office, there is little need for further investigation.

The White House's defense that firing Comey was within Trump's legal rights is no defense at all. It would have been "legal" for Steve Bannon to shoot Comey in the head and receive a presidential pardon, but it still would have been an abuse of power. It's legal for a private citizen to buy a friend a gift or to fire an employee, but it becomes illegal to do those things if the purpose of doing them is to obstruct an investigation.

It is simply not possible for America's federal law enforcement officers — the FBI, the other federal police agencies, and the dozens of US attorneys' offices around the country — to do their work properly if they know the president of the United States can and will fire them without consequence if their efforts to fully investigate criminal activity anger the president by implicating his associates.

The White House's defense that firing Comey was within Trump's legal rights is no defense at all.

Firing Comey for improper reasons has implications not just for the Russia investigation but for every federal law enforcement and regulatory action that could conceivably touch on Trump's sprawling business interests — or those of his donors, Cabinet, and circle of acquaintance. These implications are toxic — and they are important given the sheer scale of Trump's various financial conflicts and business dealings. If we know the president is willing to fire an FBI director who won't improperly tamper with an investigation into his campaign team, then how can any federal regulatory agency be trusted to supervise the various business ventures of the Trump and Kushner clans?

This is what impeachment is for

Back in 2014, I reviewed Andy McCarthy's interesting book Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama's Impeachment.

It demonstrates, more than anything else, the fundamentally paradoxical nature of the impeachment provision of the American Constitution. McCarthy argues, persuasively, that it's a mistake to see impeachment as an essentially judicial process. It is undertaken by elected officials and is meant to be a political action that serves political purposes. Republicans erred in the 1990s, he argued, by going after a president they didn't like via trying to catch him in a legal violation that was fundamentally unrelated to their real complaints about his administration.

Such violations, McCarthy argued, are neither necessary nor sufficient to make the case for impeachment.

Instead, he wanted to impeach Barack Obama on the grounds that his post-2010 efforts to advance a progressive agenda through executive action in the face of a hostile Congress were fundamentally illegitimate.

The problem here, obviously, is that the impeachment mechanism is a terrible tool for resolving a political disagreement. For starters, you'll never get 67 Senate votes for something like that. But more broadly, the problem is that the vice president just takes over. Plenty of liberals were hot to impeach George W. Bush over various actions related to Iraq and torture, but bringing Dick Cheney to power would have been a perverse remedy for any of Bush's wrongdoings. Those kinds of controversies require something like a parliamentary system's vote of no confidence process, not America's impeachment process.

Trump's obstruction of justice happens to be the rare situation to which impeachment is well-suited. It is a genuinely big deal that is directly relevant to his performance in office. And yet it's quite idiosyncratic. You don't need to be a fan of Mike Pence on any level whatsoever to see that nobody thinks he's in cahoots with the Russians or needs to cover for some kind of Paul Manafort money laundering scheme.

If Republicans would move quickly toward removing Trump from office, they could put a different, better-qualified man in his place. That wouldn't settle all of Trump's critics' disagreements with his administration — but it would put them in the realm of ordinary politics where they belong.

A prosecutor and a commission would be good

None of this is to say that investigations aren't worth doing.

As best as we can tell, the feds are currently taking hard looks at both former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. These men, and potentially others, are under suspicion of various crimes that mostly seem to relate to their handling of Russian money. These are good things to investigate — and given the political sensitivities involved with a special prosecutor, this is the right way to investigate them. It's possible that Trump himself is even implicated in criminal wrongdoing.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been named special counsel at the Department of Justice and is taking up the investigation. The appointment is welcome news given the questions swirling around some of Trump's key associates. But in parallel, there is a continuing real need for either a Senate Select Committee or some kind of independent commission to look at the broader issue of Russia, the 2016 election, and election meddling in the future.

The goal here should be to try to understand the truth of what happened and formulate some policy recommendations that the United States government and civil society could use to better harden ourselves against future tampering. The model would be something like the 9/11 investigations rather than anything prosecutorial. We've seen from subsequent elections in the Netherlands and France that the Russian government plans to continue messing around in Western politics.

Western countries have a real interest in developing countermeasures to foreign governments interfering in their elections while also not creating a domestic political climate in which no debate or disagreement around Russia policy is permitted. Both the Russia issue and the question of Russia-related illegal activity are much bigger than Trump himself and require serious inquiry. But inquiring into them is not a substitute for removing a president who abuses power and obstructs justice. Indeed, removing him is a necessary precursor to rigorously examining the rest.

The case for speed

The case against Trump is clear and obvious. Republicans are, of course, reluctant to agree. The basic logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is naturally compelling to the human mind, and the basic instinct to defend your party's president when the other party attacks is understandable. Republicans also recognize that Democrats, fundamentally, object to huge aspects of the Trump policy agenda that they embrace. The goal of Trump's critics isn't just to bring Trump down but to stymie the entire program.

And then there's the politics. Trump remains popular with the Republican Party base, and congressional Republicans learned from bitter experience in the 2016 primary that their voters are not inclined to defer to their judgment on the subject of Donald Trump. Further exacerbating the situation is the attitude of Fox News and the leading talk radio shows, all of which are firmly in the Trump-o-sphere and eager to dismiss all these charges as "fake news."

But nobody ever psyched themselves up for their first congressional run by saying they wanted to go to Washington to engage in knee-jerk partisanship or to take direction from second-rate cable news hosts. To the extent Republicans came to Washington to advance the big ideas of the conservative movement, they ought to recognize that Trump is doing daily damage to those ideas, and the more protection the Republican Party offers him, the wider the circle of people who are going to end up being brought down with him.

Take Pence. As of a week ago, his hands looked pretty much entirely clean in the whole Flynn situation. But we learned Thursday that the Trump transition project — which Pence was ostensibly heading — was in fact informed of ongoing investigations into Flynn's secret lobbying for Turkey, at the very same time that Flynn, on behalf of the transition, was delaying a Pentagon plan to attack the ISIS capital of Raqqa that the Turkish government disliked. Given the totality of the situation and the tangential nature of Pence's involvement, this seems forgivable enough to me.

But the longer Pence occupies a high-level role in an administration governed by gangster ethics, the more trouble he's going to find himself in. Like a loyal soldier, Pence came out swinging with the argument that the Comey firing was all about Rosenstein's memo, only to have Trump himself contradict him the next day. Credibility is an exhaustible resource, and with every passing day Pence has less of it.

One of the reasons Gerald Ford was able to move on from Watergate with a modicum of success is that by happenstance he'd only been vice president for eight months when Nixon resigned. There is a lesson in that for Pence, and for the Republicans who would prefer to see him in office.

The tape of the No. 1 and No. 2 Republicans in the House of Representatives "joking" about how Trump is probably on Putin's payroll is another case in point. They probably were really joking. But the joke is only funny if you acknowledge that there is something creepy and weird about Trump's affection for Putin, and something suspicious and odd about Trump's totally nontransparent finances. Every day that Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy persist in declining to use their authority to actually look into those finances, they implicate themselves more and more as co-conspirators in whatever may eventually be uncovered.

A fast, decisive break from Trump is extremely unlikely at this point. But a slow, ugly, painful divorce only means that Trump's sins will more and more become the sins of the entire party, and impeachment will look like less and less of an appropriate remedy for wrongdoing that can only be redeemed by a broad and deep electoral landslide.

Commentary by Matt Yglesias, a writer at Vox. Follow him on Twitter @mattyglesias.

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