Because I advocate for President Trump’s impeachment nearly every day, it might surprise you to learn that I don’t approve of Rep. Brad Sherman of California’s decision to introduce articles of impeachment on the same day that the new Congress is sworn in. There are a variety of reasons for my misgivings.
Most importantly, incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already declared that any possible formal impeachment inquiry will follow, rather than precede, a report from the Office of Special Counsel that is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. By ignoring the guidance of leadership, Sherman is acting in an insubordinate manner.
There are times when I applaud insubordination, but there must be a good reason. By introducing this measure on the first day of the new Congress, Rep. Sherman is preempting the leadership rather than responding to any perceived mistakes or missteps.
Another factor is that Rep. Sherman doesn’t have any special jurisdiction in this matter. He serves on the Foreign Affairs and Financial Services committees, not on Judiciary, Oversight, or Intelligence, which are the primary committees that have been and will continue to investigate Trump’s crimes and ethical violations. Sherman can’t argue that he has seen evidence not available to his colleagues or that he has any special insight that they lack.
Finally, you can gain some insight into my concerns by reading the new impeachment piece former White House Counsel Bob Bauer published on Thursday. Most people will focus on Bauer’s enthusiasm for removing Trump from office as soon as possible, but if you read him carefully you will see that he actually wants a slow, methodical process that focuses first on defining the proper purpose and uses of the impeachment process.
The context for the following is that Bauer recognizes that a recent Quinnipiac poll showed 60 percent of the public currently opposes opening an impeachment inquiry.
So it is natural to ask how an impeachment process ever gets off the ground with sufficiently wide public acceptance.
The answer lies in how the House goes about the business of inquiry—whether it proceeds methodically and transparently, with apparent care and seriousness of purpose. It can begin with consideration of the structure of the process and the elaboration and discussion of standards. The Watergate experience supplies guidance. The House Judiciary Committee staff then put out a document explicating the scope of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a text that is consulted to this day. In addition, the Committee elicited the assistance of notable historians in mapping the American experience with impeachment. The Committee today can follow its predecessors in these and other ways to lay a foundation for substantive inquiry. It can do much of the preliminary work behind closed doors, limiting if not extinguishing the opportunities for political grandstanding, and then release procedural and other documents for public discussion and debate before proceeding to call witnesses and gather testimony.
All of these steps serve to build gradual public trust in and understanding of the process and should help counter the shrill complaints of the president on Twitter and his most dedicated supporters. It also assures that a responsibly crafted process is in place to respond to further, even likely, developments as a result of the Mueller investigation, congressional investigations, and ongoing litigation over the president’s continuing private business interests. Of central importance is the credibility of the process, and it would be significantly enhanced if it is directed to fundamental features of this demagogic presidency, rather than apparently hurried into service by one or the other eruptions in the 24-hour, breaking news cycle.
Rep. Sherman is acting precipitously, before any of the groundwork has been laid. And he’s creating a very distorted decision for his colleagues when he asks them to vote for or against an impeachment inquiry. A vote against will be perceived in some senses as a statement that the president’s current record of malfeasance doesn’t merit removal from office, but a vote for will show a lack of confidence in the leadership and an endorsement of a strategy that hasn’t been thought through. That’s not a very kind choice to put before your colleagues.
As for Bob Bauer’s argument, I definitely endorse most of it but I think he spends too little time thinking about what happens if there is an impeachment that is not followed by a conviction. He also discounts how opening an inquiry will almost inevitably lead to an actual impeachment in the same sense that authorizing a Special Counsel or Special Prosecutor will inevitably lead to some criminal charges.
To successfully remove the president from office, the most important jurors must be constantly kept in mind. The American people will respond to the evidence once it is laid out, but they will also filter that information though their perception of the fairness and judiciousness of the process. The Republican senators want Trump gone as much or more than any other constituency in the country, but they need a case that is as solid as possible, and if it looks like the Democrats prejudged or led a rush to justice, that will give them far less cover to act.
All of this calls for patience. Rather than moving immediately to start impeachment proceedings, the Democrats should practice more traditional oversight and continue the preexisting congressional investigations into the 2016 elections. They shouldn’t be idle while waiting for Mueller to deliver, but they shouldn’t take official steps toward impeachment either.
Done correctly, there won’t be more than a handful of Trump supporters left by the time the Senate is asked to render their verdict.