A Case Against Impeachment

Three (provisional) reasons not to put the president on trial.

You could argue that the month of January has very modestly raised the odds that Donald Trump will not finish his term as president.

First, the government shutdown has demonstrated that Trump’s own incompetence suffices to cost him support in the polls and in the Senate — an indication that a larger crumbling of his political firewall might be possible.

Second, the indictment of Roger Stone, based on his lies to Congress about outreach to WikiLeaks, keeps open the possibility of future revelations of conspiracy implicating Trump himself.

Finally, there has been a burst of media interest in impeachment — an Atlantic cover story by Yoni Appelbaum prodding Democrats to take the plunge, and a more cautious essay by my colleague David Leonhardt putting the option on the table.

I’m open to these arguments; indeed, I have to be, since I’m on the record urging this president’s removal from office using the unusual remedy of the 25th Amendment. But there are several difficulties with the current briefs for impeachment, which suffice for now to keep a Pence presidency out of reach.

The first is the gulf between the democracy-subverting powers that the briefs ascribe to Trump and the actual extent of his influence. In Appelbaum’s essay, the president is charged with nothing less than having “trampled” on “the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.” But many of his examples feature Trump failing to actually trample anything. He “did his best” to enact a Muslim travel ban (the actual ban was limited and upheld by the Supreme Court), he has “called for” the firing of political enemies (with little discernible result), he has made “efforts” to impede the Mueller investigation (which continues apace), and so on down the list of outrages that exist primarily on his Twitter feed.

Much of the case for “trampling,” then, is a case against Trump’s rhetoric. And one can acknowledge that rhetoric’s evils while doubting that the ranting of a president so hemmed in, unpopular and weak is meaningfully threatening the Constitution.

..Especially because of the second problem with the case for impeachment, which might be summed up in a line from a poem that Trump often quoted in 2016: You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.Meaning, in this case, that little about his rhetorical excess, his penchant for lies and insults or the seaminess of his courtiers was hidden from voters on the campaign trail in 2016, in an election that by the Constitution’s standards Trump legitimately won.

The electorate’s foreknowledge of a politician’s sleaziness doesn’t preclude impeachment. But it means that there is, at least, a quantum of sleaze that the president’s supporters voted to accept. And the closer we get to a new election — including another primary campaign — the stronger the case for asking voters to retract that endorsement, instead of pre-empting their judgment from on high.

.. Appelbaum, for instance, analogizes Trump’s race-baiting to Andrew Johnson’s efforts to impede Reconstruction in the late-1860s South. But when he was impeached, Johnson was literally using his veto to abet the possible restoration of white supremacy. Whereas Trump is conspicuously losing a fight over some modest border fencing, and his last race-inflected policy move was … a criminal justice reform supported by many African-Americans. The president may be a bigot, but the policy stakes do not remotely resemble 1868.

Then there are the geopolitical risks of Trump’s alleged Russian loyalties. After the Stone arrest, Appelbaum’s Atlantic colleague David Frum deemed these too severe to wait even for Robert Mueller’s verdict: “But now — now! — the country is in danger.”

But in the absence of Mueller-stamped evidence, what we have to prove that peril is Trump’s actual foreign policy, which is erratic but frequently quite unfriendly to Moscow — with the administration’s effort to subvert the Russian-aligned Maduro regime in Venezuela just this week’s example.

Which makes it entirely reasonable to wait to see whether Mueller vindicates the various uncorroborated scoops about a conspiracy hatched in Prague or the Ecuadorean Embassy, rather than trying to impeach Trump for, say, his private griping about NATO.

At the end of my invoke-the-25th-Amendment column I wrote, “There will be time to return again to world-weariness and cynicism as this agony drags on.” That was month four of this presidency; as we approach month 25 I suppose I have become that world-weary cynic.

Rosenstein Defends the Mueller Probe

For all of the president’s Twitter tantrums about how the investigation is supposedly “rigged,” Mueller has never alleged that the Trump campaign was complicit in Russia’s election meddling.

This is not for lack of thoroughness on the prosecutor’s part. Mueller has brought two sweeping indictments against Russian operatives. Rosenstein made these charges a point of emphasis in the interview. It is noteworthy, then, that these narrative “speaking indictments” appear to preclude the possibility of a conspiratorial relationship between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. They indicate that Russia was conducting influence operations before Trump entered the campaign, that it orchestrated some against Trump, and that it wanted deniability.

Clearly, Rosenstein has been fixed on something often ignored by the president: Trump would benefit from being exonerated after a searching investigation by Mueller.

..  He appointed Mueller at the end of a frenetic week in which, reportedly distraught, he discussed the possibility of covertly recording Trump at meetings to demonstrate the latter’s instability. This would be a prelude to invoking the 25th Amendment
.. The Mueller appointment — after Rosenstein considered naming former Obama deputy attorney general James Cole — was designed to signal to the Washington establishment that Rosenstein (confirmed 94–6, thanks to overwhelming Democratic support in the Senate) was still on the team.
.. For Trump’s part, moreover, it would be foolish to believe that the president’s drumbeat against the investigation means he fails to grasp the potential benefit of being cleared by Mueller. He surely gets it. Yet, unlike Rosenstein, Trump has had to live with the challenges of governing under a cloud of suspicion
.. he may well believe these costs have outweighed any benefit he’d get from being cleared for something there was never much evidence he did. Plus, the president is nothing if not shrewd. There are political advantages in ripping the probe. He does not forfeit the upside of exoneration by stressing that his campaign and administration have been targeted by an investigation rife with leaks and other irregularities. Even if the riled-up Trump base believes the probe is a witch hunt, it would still credit him for being cleared.
.. Rosenstein maintains — in the Journal’s words — that “the investigation has already revealed a widespread effort by Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
.. In fact, the indictments are more in the nature of publicity stunts than charging instruments. Foreign powers are subjected to counterintelligence investigations, not criminal probes, in part because they are essentially immune from prosecution. Mueller’s indictments against Russians enable Rosenstein and the special counsel’s other cheerleaders to argue that the dozens of people charged show that the special-counsel appointment was — as Rosenstein claims — “appropriate and independent.”
.. But they don’t. An indictment is just an allegation; it does not prove anything. More to the point, everyone — very much including Rosenstein and Mueller — is well aware that Vladimir Putin was never, ever going to turn his operatives over to the American justice system for trial. As I’ve pointed out before, there are another 143 million people in Russia, and if Mueller were to charge every one of them, he’d have very impressive indictment statistics but he won’t have proved anything, and he won’t have come close to establishing that anyone in America, let alone the president of the United States, colluded in election interference.
.. there is no reason the indictments against Russians could not have been filed by the Justice Department without the appointment of a special counsel
.. Rosenstein refused to discuss well-sourced reports that he suggested covertly recording the president. It is not apparent whether he was asked about proposing that the 25th Amendment be invoked against Trump. Nor is there indication that Rosenstein was pressed on such flashpoints as whether he actually read the FISA surveillance warrant against a former Trump campaign official that he approved in June 2017
.. (The warrant expressly said that the FBI believed that Trump campaign officials were likely complicit in Russia’s election interference.) And was Rosenstein asked about the Justice Department’s stonewalling of congressional inquiries into apparent investigative irregularities? We don’t know.
.. a reader who had not been following the storms engulfing Rod Rosenstein’s tenure as deputy attorney general would come away come away from the Journal’s interview wondering why there is so much fuss about such a dedicated, unassuming public servant.

Why the Anonymous Trump Official’s Op-Ed in the New York Times Matters

In 1947, “Mr. X” wrote an extremely influential article, for Foreign Affairs, advocating a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies. Its author turned out to be the diplomat George Kennan, who was then the second-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And, in 1996, Random House published “Primary Colors,” a thinly disguised roman à clef about Bill Clinton, by “Anonymous.” Less consequential than Kennan’s contribution, the novel nonetheless created a great deal of speculation about who its author was; it turned out to be the political journalist Joe Klein.

.. By nightfall on Wednesday, there were reports that White House officials were engaged in a frantic search for the culprit.

..  “scrutiny focused on a half-dozen names.”

.. the piece merely adds to what we already know about Trump’s character and the struggle of people around him to control his destructive tendencies.

.. it was reported that the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the national-security adviser at the time—James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster—had privately agreed to avoid being out of Washington at the same time.

.. There have been numerous reports about how Don McGahn, the outgoing White House counsel, tried to talk Trump out of firing James Comey and Jeff Sessions.

.. The real importance of the Op-Ed is that it corroborates these reports, provides a window into the mind-set of people who continue to work for Trump, and also reveals some intriguing details. “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president,”

.. Really? “Early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the Constitution to oust the President? If this is true, it is information of enormous consequence, and leads to a series of further questions. Who was involved in these discussions, and how far did the whispers go?

.. The suggestion that at least some members of the Cabinet have talked about invoking these powers is new and shocking. But what does it mean to say that the whisperers didn’t want to precipitate a crisis? After all, the rest of the article makes clear that the crisis already exists and is deadly serious.

.. The head of state of the most powerful country in the world is someone whose own subordinates and appointees regard as unmoored, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

.. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the Op-Ed says. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. . . . Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

.. “I have no respect for someone who would say these things—of whose truth I have no doubt—in an anonymous oped, rather than in a public resignation letter copied to the House Judiciary Committee.”

.. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”

.. These are legitimate concerns, but the larger one is that we have a menacing dingbat in the White House, and nobody with the requisite authority seems willing to do anything about it, other than to try to manage the situation on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. Perhaps this could be seen as a “Trump containment” strategy, but it falls well short of the systematic containment strategy that Kennan advocated, and, in any case, the Trumpkins, unlike the early Cold War strategists, are not necessarily dealing with a rational actor. Something more is surely needed.

 

Trump’s Petticoat Government

What’s different about Donald Trump is that his inability to handle the weight and responsibility of his office is not something that crept up gradually

.. Instead it’s been a defining feature of his administration from Day 1 — and indeed was obvious during the campaign that elected him.

.. the president’s unfitness is not really a Harvey Weinstein-style “open secret,” an awful reality known to insiders

.. anyone who reads the papers (this one especially) knows that some combination of Trump’s personality and temperament and advancing age leave him constantly undone by the obligations of the presidency.

.. the book may be dubious in some particulars but as the consummate insiders Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote on Thursday, the parts about Trump’s capabilities and mental state “ring unambiguously true.”

.. the 25th Amendment option isn’t happening — not without some major presidential deterioration in the midst of a major crisis, and probably not even then.

.. So unless Robert Mueller has more goods than I expect, we are going to live for the next few years in the way that America lived during the waning days of Nixon, the end of the Wilson administration

.. the central question of these years is not a normal policy question, or even the abnormal sort that the Resistance and other fascism-fearers expect to face.

.. The idea of a right-populist agenda died with Bannon’s exit from the White House

.. the standard-issue G.O.P. agenda has little left after the tax cuts

.. Trump’s authoritarian impulses, while genuine, seem unlikely to produce even aggrandizement on the scale of past presidents from F.D.R. to Nixon, because he has no competence to execute on them.

.. Can the people who surround Donald Trump work around his incapacity successfully enough to keep his unfitness from producing a historic calamity?

.. the men and women of the West Wing, for all that the media was ridiculing them, actually felt they had a responsibility to the country,”

.. the work has been necessary and important, and the achievement of relative stability a genuine service to the United States.

.. Can it continue in the face of some greater crisis than Trump has yet confronted? Can it continue if the Democrats take a share of power or if the president’s own family faces legal jeopardy?

.. Is the American system more able to correct for presidential incapacity than some of us have feared?

Comments

The GOP has married its fortunes to a fake news industry that has been driving & chasing its audience’s anger deeper & deeper into extremism and fantasy for over 2 decades. A country that mistakes Fox or Breitbart for journalism, or Mr. McConnell or Mr Ryan for anything but thieves (or Obama for a socialist), is a country that can mistake Trump for an intelligent adult.

.. Republican Party interest resides in power, not in government.

What they adore is a lack of government, a lack of free and fair elections, a lack of consumer, environmental and worker protection, a lack of affordable healthcare, a lack of education, information, science and progress… a lack of income taxes to pay for any sort of decent civilization for the non-rich masses.

.. Trump The Useful Idiot is a perfectly fine fake President for Republican pirates and Reverse Robin Hoods to decimate America with fake justices, fake elections, fake healthcare and the fraudulent Prosperity Gospel that has reduced America to a shameful, unrepresentative oligarchic state.

.. The more the media rails about Trump’s mental status, the more the third of the electorate which supports him will feel the vicarious paranoia and outrage against the “elites” who, they feel with some justification, are trying to gaslight him out of office sooner rather than later.

.. As long as the stock market keeps booming and the rich keep growing richer, the #Resistance will continue playing out as a soap opera for our aghast entertainment.

.. The media had their chance to destroy Trump’s candidacy. Instead they nourished it with $5 billion worth of free advertising. His TV rallies and debates were ratings bonanzas. Media mogul Les Moonves even gloated that Trump “may not be good for America, but he’s damned good for CBS!”