Opinion: History says go big on impeachment. Democrats play small ball

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) speaks as other House committee leaders listen during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday to announce two articles of impeachment to be brought against President Trump.
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Two and a half months ago, the White House put President Trump on an irreversible path toward impeachment by releasing a reconstructed transcript of his July 25 call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The question I posed then was whether Democrats could keep their focus on Trump’s handling of Ukraine and resist the temptation to turn the impeachment inquiry into a parade of long-simmering grievances against a norm-breaking president they simply cannot abide.

The answer appears to be yes, they can. Tuesday morning, top House Democrats announced that they will proceed with two articles of impeachment, accusing the president of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in connection with l’affaire Ukraine. They left the door open to more articles, such as obstruction of justice for Trump’s (unsuccessful) attempts to interfere with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But the process is moving so quickly, there’s little time to build much of a record to support any additional articles.

Republicans have argued that there’s not much of a record for any action against Trump. They insist that Trump was speaking in code, not in plain English, when he asked the leader of a foreign government to conduct a criminal investigation into Trump’s top political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. To Democrats, that’s straight-up abuse of power. But using the GOP’s decoder ring, that’s actually the president trying to keep U.S. tax dollars from being squandered by a corrupt ally.


I won’t rehash the obvious problems with that explanation. Instead, let’s consider whether the Democrats would be better off to throw the kitchen sink at Trump instead of limiting impeachment to the Ukraine episode.

History suggests that it’s a mistake to impeach a president on narrow grounds. The House has done so twice before, with Presidents Clinton and Andrew Johnson, only to have the Senate refuse to convict. And in both instances, the impeachments touched on a fraction of the complaints leveled by the president’s critics.

Republicans eyed Clinton as a liar (“Slick Willie”) who weasled out of scandals, yet the impeachment dealt solely with his false statements to a grand jury about the sex he’d had with a White House intern. Reconstruction-era Republicans had been infuriated by Johnson’s efforts to countermand and undermine law after law aimed at changing the power structure in Southern states and forcing them to grant full rights to freed slaves — in other words, to pretend as if the Civil War had never happened. But the articles of impeachment they brought against him focused largely on his decision to remove Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure in Office Act.

Author and playwright James Reston Jr. said in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that if the Democrats sought to impeach Trump just on Ukraine, they would be shirking their duty to hold the president to account for all of his improper behavior in office. “It would deny the American people a comprehensive case for the president’s removal, and forgo the national civics lesson that an all-encompassing indictment of the president would provide, an indictment that could and should define and refine the standards and ethics the nation expects from its supreme leader,” Reston wrote.

But these are different times, thanks to the astounding fealty that Republicans are showing to Trump. I have a hard time grasping why anyone thinks it’s all right for a president to ask a foreign government to investigate a U.S. citizen, let alone the president’s most popular political opponent. That’s banana republic behavior. But not only have all but a handful of Republicans been unfazed by the reconstructed transcript, they seem unable to distinguish what Trump did from Biden’s push to oust a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor that seemingly all of Ukraine’s allies wanted to see removed. It’s as if they accept Trump’s crazy notion that his personal interests are the same as the national interest.

So Democrats could spend months assembling the evidence to support a far-reaching bill of particulars against Trump, documenting the most consequential lies he’s told the public, the violations of the domestic and foreign emoluments clauses, his declaration of nonexistent emergencies and national security threats to get around Congress’ restrictions on his power to spend (on the border wall) and tax (by slapping tariffs on imports).... The list could go on and on. Yet the end result is likely to be the same, given the wall of GOP votes protecting the president.


Granted, Congress would be well served to reestablish some of the norms that Trump has shattered. Beyond applying a political scarlet letter to its recipient, impeachment also clarifies the boundaries of executive branch authority. It would behoove Congress to reclaim some of the power that Trump has claimed for the Oval Office.

But impeachment is a sledgehammer — a blunt instrument that’s hard to aim. Congress has other ways to address the problems Trump has exposed regarding the president’s emergency powers and his wide latitude to impose tariffs. It can use its power of the purse to clamp down on the tax dollars flowing into Trump properties.

And impeachment is profoundly divisive and distracting. Contrary to the GOP talking points, the House has been churning out legislation throughout the impeachment inquiry. But the Senate has not, and that body will grind to a halt for however long it takes to try any House-passed articles of impeachment.

That’s why the Democrats are right to keep the process focused on Trump’s malfeasance regarding Ukraine, even if it feels like they’re playing small ball. It’s a concrete example of abuse of power, well established by the evidence released by the White House. And Trump’s flat-out obstruction is undeniable, given that the president’s lawyer made no bones about it. The Republicans obviously don’t agree on either of these points, but it’s wishful thinking to expect a different response if only the allegations were more numerous and the pile of evidence higher.