August 30, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Don’t Overthink Impeachment
The Mueller probe matters, but we shouldn't undervalue what we already know.
It’s probably impossible to know whether President Donald Trump is to blame for the nearly 3,000 people who died in 2017 after Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico. Recoveries are complicated. Lots of moving parts. Lots of people involved. Did the president fail? Did the FEMA fail? How and why did they fail? Hard to say.
But it’s not hard to feel a breathtaking lobe-stroking level of rage on hearing the president not only take credit for doing a “fantastic job” but also blame the dead for their demise. “I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico,” he said Wednesday in response to a question about the death toll rising from 64. “Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before it got hit, and we’re straightening out those difficulties even now.”
No president can prevent natural disasters, but every president has set aside his personal interests in times of national emergency. I’m sure Barack Obama and Chris Christie didn’t especially like each other. But that didn’t matter after Hurricane Sandy carved out miles of the Jersey shore. When the president came to survey the aftermath, the governor was grateful. Love or hate him, Obama honored his presidential duty.
To hear him, it’s like he’s saying Puerto Rico should be thankful the damage wasn’t worse. Stop complaining, I can imagine him saying. You’re lucky you got anything from us, as if citizens were not entitled to action from their government.
Worse, it’s like he’s mocking people for having placed any trust in him. Take or be taken is his motto. Only suckers trust. Do that, and you bring disaster on yourself.
So yes, it’s probably impossible to know whether Trump is to blame for nearly 3,000 lives lost. What we do know is we can’t trust him to do more or to possess the decency to empathize. When asked about the new death toll, he didn’t do what past presidents would have done: probably something about process and accountability, setting out a course of future action—all the while at least pretending to care that people died.
No, Trump aggrandized himself before faulting the dead.
It’s easy, and understandable, to focus on precisely how and why Trump failed Puerto Rico before assigning blame. But that, to me, distracts from the fact that this president is indifferent to human suffering, that he engages with the lives of other people solely for the purpose of getting something from them. I’m not saying anything new here, but it’s important to bear this in mind as we enter election season and as the investigation into Trump’s ties to the Russians builds to a crescendo.
Above and beyond anything else, I think the results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry are going to be about what we already know to be true about Trump. He’s unfit. He shouldn’t be president. He’s doing more harm than good. Yes, we’ll find out whether he obstructed justice, abused power, conspired with the enemy to win the presidency and undermine the republic. These all matter a great deal.
But is knowing that Trump broke the law or committed treason going to change the opinion of a majority of American who already don’t trust this president? I doubt it. The results of the Mueller probe are most likely to make distrust more widespread. In other words, we shouldn’t undervalue what we already know to be true about Trump.
My larger point is that politics isn’t like a court of law. Politics isn’t like figuring out whether Trump is directly to blame for nearly 3,000 dead Americans. That’s missing the forest on account of the trees. We don’t need to see direct evidence of Trump being unfit for having anything to do with the presidency. We already know.
A distracted electorate is unlikely to follow legal nuances as they unfold in granular detail. What people can see is that Trump attacks the press, attacks the rule of law, lies as frequency as he breathes, associates with criminals and cronies, and—as when he said “we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico”—puts his interests above the nation’s.
If the Democrats take the House, expect talk about impeachment to pick up pace. I hope we don’t overthink the problem. Impeachment is not about the law.
As Lindsey Graham said back in the 1990s, a president doesn’t have to be convicted of a crime to lose his job “if [Congress] determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds.” More simply, a president doesn’t have to break the law to be removed. All that’s needed is for the American people to say he’s unfit.
And most of us already know that.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.