There is a lot of noise about impeachment in the news and the among the commentariat and pundit class, and suddenly everyone in the US is scrambling to recall what they learned in 7th grade civics class about the branches of government. I have mostly followed this, though I have found it far too easy to, on the one hand, get lost in twitter threads that devolve into labeling Trump and his administration stupid (which is inadequate as an explanation of this tangle of issues), and on the other hand, to end up far into the weeds of whistleblower protection legislation and what constitutes evidence, precedent, and judicial proceeding in the case of an impeachment investigation. The latter is quite important, but perhaps I think, too technical and not particularly necessary to understand the political impetus for impeachment and its outcomes.
I am hesitant to add too much to the online cacophony attempting to give readers the hottest of takes on what impeachment means for Donald Trump, and why congressional Democrats would go this route now. Is it a political ploy leading into an election year to distract from the crowded and relatively underwhelming field of potential presidential candidates that Democrats have assembled? Perhaps, though there is a danger in seeing this merely as an electoral gambit, but certainly that must be part of the calculus. The left wing of the Democratic Party has been pushing for impeachment for a very long time, with the mainstream establishment of the party reluctant to do so for fear of upsetting swing voters and because they might lose and embolden Trump. There is also the fear that the impeachment inquiry looks too much like an extension or next phase of the Mueller investigation into dealings between the Trump campaign and Russia, which resulted in a lot of smoke but no actionable fire, accompanied by a lengthy and detailed report that was impossible to use as a political organizing tool. There is also the justifiable claim (from the left especially) that the impeachment inquiry’s object — the Trump administration’s pressuring of Ukraine to investigate a domestic political rival while withholding congressionally-approved military aid — is nothing new in American foreign policy and so why raise a constitutional stink over this? How is Trump’s pressure on Ukraine’s government to investigate the Bidens’ influence there any different from the influence peddling and pressure exerted by former VP Joe Biden? I think it is, in fact, quite different, as I explain below. I would add that in a legal and constitutional sense, Democrats must probably act in a decisive, high-stakes way here or lose the final shreds of moral standing they can legitimately claim to have as a principled political party. As the Trump administration has increasingly blocked attempts to gather information and sought to exert executive power over Congress, it fundamentally challenges the structure of the Constitution’s checks and balances and the legislature’s standing as a co-equal branch of government. Love the Constitution or not, it is the foundational structure of the federal government and abstract critiques of its limits and faults doesn’t change the fact that it enables and constrains the federal government and the actions of elected officials in fundamental ways.
We might also ask, though, why Democrats don’t just put forward a winning program and candidate to defeat Trump in the 2020 election, rather than drag the American public through the spectacle of an impeachment process? A good question, though again, I am going to argue that there is a clear but unspoken reason why congressional Democrats are pursuing impeachment now, and why some congressional Republicans might join them (enough to swing a guilty vote in the Senate if it gets to that remains unclear). And let’s be clear, ‘the people’ matter in this impeachment proceeding only to the extent that they can be a rhetorical device called upon by the battling parties, or as a pool of potential 2020 voters either irked or jazzed by Trump’s impeachment. There is no referendum on impeachment, no appeal, no popular support that could be marshalled to alter the process, except insofar as people in Congress are afraid of impeachment in relation to their electoral fortunes next year.
Impeachment now is the path because, as President, you simply cannot be allowed to use the enormous power of the national security state to undermine domestic political opponents, at least not ones from the other mainstream political party. Both the Democrats and Republicans have worked hard for 70-plus years to build a national security apparatus that is insulated from popular domestic political pressures, and is meant to be deployed in support of American foreign policy abroad and social unrest at home. It does not mean there is a ‘deep state’ conspiracy against Donald Trump, because the state is big and slow to move and both major parties have invested time and money and political capital in its success to achieve their ends as a relatively unitary entity representing the interests of American capital around the world. The ‘deep state’ implies it is unmoored from these fundamental objects of foreign policy and social order, and that is narrowly partisan both in intent and in how it goes about its business. Republicans must surely be wary of giving carte blanche to a President who uses the resources of the Justice Department, the State Department, and potentially the FBI and CIA to pressure other governments to investigate a domestic political rival because it would be another accretion of power to the imperial executive, but one that could easily be turned against their own party in future. (And honestly, when has the US government not generally backed American businesspeople in their attempts to get on corporate boards and influence or control foreign capital?) To the extent that Trump’s actions don’t hurt them electorally, and they continue to get whatever it is they want from his administration, they’ll stand by their man. But like the precedent of executive orders that can be quickly undone with a partisan change in the White House, spite and fiat are not good ways to govern in a system ostensibly defined by legislation and the rule of law. And if the question of Hunter Biden profiting from his father’s position as VP is one that must be investigated, well, who better to do that than the man whose own inept children have lived on a steady supply of government assistance and taxpayer dollars since the day dear old dad was sworn in? There’s not a lot of here that the Republicans may want to see repeated in reverse in the future, especially given that this is wrapped up in weird conspiracy theories about Ukrainian servers and Hillary Clinton’s emails and a previous investigation of the Bidens turned up nothing legally actionable. But more fundamentally, neither party can or will allow the massive system they’ve built to spy on and overthrow foreign governments, listen to our phone calls, and project American military and commercial power around the globe to be used in the pursuit of private political gain in a domestic election. Too much money, influence, and power are at stake.