Members Only | July 26, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the End, There Must Be Justice

There's more than one way to hold a president accountable.

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The thing about moderate House Democrats who won last year districts previously held by Republicans isn’t that they are against the morality of impeachment per se. It’s that the morality of impeachment for them is beside the point. The immediate point for them is that doing so could lead to political suicide. Asking someone to commit political suicide in the name of morality isn’t a very moral thing to do, is it? 

So we have to take their views and interests into account no matter how much we believe that Donald Trump committed crimes before and after taking office. In other words, doing the right thing may cause collateral damage. Those calling on the Democrats to do the right thing need to think about whether doing the right thing would cause more harm than good. The stakes are not isolated to one very unfit president. The stakes are uncertain, multiple, socialized and difficult to see. 

Let’s presume for the sake of argument that anything the House Democrats do will fail in the Senate. Either the Republicans acquit Trump or ignore the House. (The latter is likely to happen because the Constitution does not require the Senate to pick up where the House leaves off, and also because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is an oleaginous power addict.) That presents a chicken-and-egg question: Will a failed attempt to remove a president help Trump’s chances of reelection or hurt him?


Don’t confuse impeachment with accountability.


Volumes have been written for each side. The problem is we can’t know. Specifically, we can’t know until we try but by then it might be too late to change course. Of course, we might be able to change course, but then we can’t know that until we decide on a course. By then—again!—it might be too late. So we can’t know. We can’t know what we don’t know until we know it. You can see therefore the wisdom of Democrats’ doing nothing. Doing nothing right now is more knowable than doing something.

You could say damn the election! This is about justice! That’s a position I’m sympathetic to. But, as New York’s Ed Kilgore reminded us, there are moral considerations to a second Trump term some impeachment advocates are not thinking about. If things are bad now—things are really bad now—they will be much worse during a second term. You could say Trump can’t possibly win another term, so go ahead and impeach! But that under-appreciates his structural advantages—the Electoral College, voter ID laws, etc.—as well as the amazing resilience of white supremacy and voter indifference. Impeaching him might hurt him, true, but again it might help. We just can’t know until we know and by then it might be too late.

But of course the House Democrats can’t do nothing. Morality demands satisfactory action. If only they could find a way to do something without doing too much. According to Greg Sargent, there is a way: an impeachment inquiry opened by the Judiciary Committee that does not require anything from moderate Democrats. This is how the House Democrats can do something without doing too much. Moderates can say they have nothing to do with it while seeing if anything damning emerges.

Will this be satisfactory?

I don’t know, but I think we make a mistake if we confuse impeachment with accountability. Indeed, impeachment is one way to hold a president accountable. It’s one way of deterring bad behavior from future presidents. But impeachment isn’t the only way. Robert Mueller reminded us this week that the presidency in effect shields Trump from criminal indictment, but the shield is temporary. After Trump leaves office, he could be charged with federal crimes intimated in Mueller’s report. 

He should be—if that’s what the evidence and the rule of law call for. Trump should be even if one of the Democrats defeats him next year. If he is not held accountable for his crimes, then he and any president is in fact above the law, and any Democrat who invokes that ideal is a fraud if they do not also support the prosecution of justice.

While there is wisdom in saying we should not impeach, there is no wisdom in saying we need to look forward not back. That’s just cowardice. But even now, as Heather Digby Parton wrote yesterday, some Democrats are eager “to move on.” She wrote: “Because they’ve been very vocal about not ‘going after’ a defeated political rival, they are highly unlikely to indict Trump for crimes for which they refused to impeach him.”

I’ll close by quoting Ed Kako, an Editorial Board subscriber:

“Obama chose not to hold the Bush administration to account for the Iraq War or the financial crisis. That was a mistake. But it was hardly the first. No one held Reagan and GHWB to account for Iran-Contra. And Ford botched it by pardoning Nixon. If we find a way through this, we have to say: enough. People must be held accountable, or history will repeat itself. It may already be too late, though I hope I’m wrong.”

I hope Ed’s wrong, too.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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