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.