Answers to Impeachment Objections
You might think there's no role for us in the impeachment process. But our role may be the most important one. Here's what you need to know to start doing your part.
So it's on: There's a serious impeachment inquiry, and in all likelihood it will lead to a vote in the House on articles of impeachment. Then it will be the Senate's turn to look at the evidence and decide.
In a literal, constitutional sense, that's where the important stuff will happen: in Congress. Witnesses will be called, subpoenas issued, questions asked and answered, votes held, and in the end the President either will or won't continue in office.
To lesser extent, stuff will happen in the courts. What subpoenas are valid? What documents have to be produced? What witnesses have to testify? What privileges can they claim to avoid answering?
Put that way, it sounds like there is no role for the rest of us. But in fact there is a role, and collectively our role is the most important one. Because whatever the evidence says, Congress isn't going to move without public support. So at every point, they're going to wondering about us: Are we paying attention? Are engaged or bored? Angry with the President or with his accusers? Convinced by the case against him or befuddled?
So yes, it's about witnesses, documents, and votes. But it's also about TV ratings, public demonstrations, letters to the editor, and what's trending on Twitter. While we're watching Congress and the courts, they're going to be watching us.
Yes, Congress will eventually make up its mind. But they will also be following us as we make up our minds. And that will happen not in televised hearings, but over coffee and in social media. We'll think things out on our own, or discuss them one-on-one or in small gatherings. And what we decide will matter.
Trump's supporters seem to understand this, so they have been out in force spreading — let's be blunt about this — bullshit. Wild charges, baseless conspiracy theories, lies about evidence that has already come out, threats, pseudo-legal mumbo-jumbo, and anything else will throw sand in the gears of the public thought process. You can see this happening on the TV talk shows, where Trump defenders like Jim Jordan and Rudy Giuliani shout, talk over their interviewers, change their story from moment to moment, and refuse to answer questions — because they know that if the public has a rational conversation about evidence and law, Trump will lose. They can't engage your mind, they have to overpower you.
The same thing is happening on the smaller scales as well. Trumpists distract, misdirect, make things up, repeat slogans, insult, spread conspiracy theories without worrying that they contradict each other, and in general create a fog rather than shining a light. Because if the American people just get confused, nothing will happen. And that's what they want.
So it's important that lots and lots of us refuse to be confused or distracted, and that (to the extent we can) we commit to be shapers of the opinions around us rather than wallflowers.
With that in mind, I have assembled a list of the most popular objections to impeachment that I have heard, and have tried to cut through the fog with sharp answers you can use in your own discussions.
What about the Bidens? This isn't really a defense of Trump at all; it's an attempt to distract attention from his wrongdoing and unfitness for office.
I discussed the general tactic of whataboutism back in August. Its purpose is to draw you into defending Biden against a ridiculous attack, which keeps the spotlight off of Trump and the reasons to remove him from office. The important thing to understand here is that a whataboutist can win by losing: Even if you shred all of his arguments, and impress all physical or social-media bystanders with the baselessness of his charges, all that time and energy has been diverted from the case against Trump. As I wrote in August:
Since the point of whataboutism is to derail a criticism rather than refute it, a false assertion often works even better than a true one, because the discussion then careens off into evidence that the assertion is false. Suddenly we're rehashing the details of what Obama or Clinton did or didn't do, while the original criticism of Trump scrolls off the page.
The opposite horn of the dilemma is to leave people with the general impression that there is something slimy about Biden, even if they can't say exactly what it is. (To a large extent, this kind of shapeless smear is what sunk Hillary Clinton.)
What to do? Two things:
- Call out the whataboutism for what it is: a confession that Trump's actions can't be defended on their own terms. All his defenders have is distraction: Look here! Look there! Look anyplace but at the criminal in the White House!
- Don't go through the details of defending Biden — that's taking the whataboutist bait — but do have a detailed reference you can link to or point to. Say something like "This has been checked out in detail and it's all bullshit." (Or maybe substitute some more polite word for bullshit, depending on the forum.) This response has the advantage of being completely true.
I recommend two links: "The Swiftboating of Joe Biden" from the Just Security blog, and "I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside-Down" in The Intercept.
The whistleblower report is all hearsay. Lindsey Graham went wild with this talking point on Face the Nation Sunday, repeating "hearsay" 11 times. The kernel of truth is that the whistleblower complaint assembles information from unnamed "White House officials", many of whom saw or heard things the whistleblower himself/herself did not witness.
But that kind of misses the point: The evidence that is really damning is the transcript of Trump's call with the Ukrainian president, which the White House released itself. That's not hearsay. (It also matches the whistleblower's description pretty well, which argues for his/her credibility.)
The whistleblower's complaint is a roadmap for investigation, and not the substance of the case against Trump. By the time an impeachment vote is held, the House will have assembled more direct sources that either will or won't corroborate what the complaint says. I expect the White House to try to stop those sources from testifying, because that's what guilty people do.
There was no quid pro quo. This is just a lie, and a pretty obvious one at that. It's impossible to read the transcript of the Ukraine call without immediately recognizing the quid (money for Ukraine's defense against Russian invaders) and the quo (manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden).
It's true that Don Trump never spells it out in so many words, but Don Corleone never did either. When the Godfather said, "I'm going to make you an offer you can't refuse", he never elaborated "because if you do, something bad will happen to you." He didn't have to.
Where's the crime? As you read the Ukraine transcript or the whistleblower complaint, and then listen to legal analysts debate it, one striking thing is that the laws they discuss don't really capture what's wrong here. It's sort of like extortion. It's sort of like bribery. It's definitely a campaign violation, but that seems like a comparatively minor charge.
What's wrong is that the President is treating the powers of his office as if they were his private possessions, rather than as a trust he holds for the People. He is trading a public good — aid to defend Ukraine from a Russian invasion — for a personal advantage over a rival in the 2020 election. If that kind of thing is acceptable presidential behavior, then we can pretty much give up on having fair elections from now on. Foreign governments will try to curry favor with future presidents by doing things that would be illegal for the president to do himself — like hacking DNC emails the way the Russians did in 2016 — and expect to receive future favors like foreign aid or readmission to the G-7.
Trump wriggled out of that bit of cheating by claiming that he didn't directly conspire with the Russians in their crimes. (That's the "no collusion" part of the Mueller report: Mueller established that Trump was the beneficiary of Russia's crimes, but was unable to prove Trump's involvement in the criminal conspiracy.) But in the Ukraine case, Trump is personally involved in an attempt to strong-arm the Ukrainian president into helping him cheat in 2020.
If that's OK from now on, then the Republic is sunk. Future elections will be meaningless.
Abuses of power that "subvert the Constitution, the integrity of government, or the rule of law" are precisely what the Founders had in mind when they put impeachment into the Constitution, and it doesn't matter whether the details precisely match some criminal statute. Congress should not get lost in legalisms, but needs to focus on defending the integrity of our elections.
The Senate will never remove Trump from office, so what's the point? Three things are wrong with this one:
- Not impeaching Trump will be costly. First, it would back up Trump's claim that all the Democratic talk about Trump's crimes is just politics; if the charges were serious, Pelosi would have impeached him, wouldn't she? And second, it is in Trump's nature to keep pushing until he meets resistance. If pressuring foreign countries to manufacture dirt on his rivals is OK, what other ways will he find to cheat in the 2020 elections? If you want to beat Trump in 2020, you can't just stand there and watch him cheat.
- Impeachment puts Republican senators on the spot. When you don't do your job because you assume the next guy won't do his, you take the pressure off the next guy. "I would have done my job," he can claim later, "but nobody asked me." Republican senators, especially the ones vulnerable in 2020 like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, will try to distance themselves from Trump's crimes without doing anything to upset his base. ("Deeply troubling," Mitt Romney says, and he's the brave one.) Democrats should assemble the case against Trump as clearly as possible and make senators vote yes or no. Do you approve of this behavior or not?
- You never know. The Nixon impeachment seemed absurd until suddenly it wasn't. Trump's support in the Senate is held together by fear, not by love or unity of purpose. Coalitions of fear sometimes dissolve suddenly, as in "The Emperor's New Clothes". If Trump starts going down, not many senators will want to go down with him.
Impeachment will make it impossible to accomplish anything else. Frank Bruni makes the argument like this:
Where's the infrastructure plan that we're — oh — a quarter-century late in implementing? Where are the fixes to a health care system whose problems go far beyond the tens of millions of Americans still uninsured? What about education?
This argument would be a lot more persuasive if Mitch McConnell's Senate hadn't bottled up everything before impeachment. Republicans in Congress may use impeachment as an excuse to do nothing; but they weren't doing anything anyway.
The Democratic House has actually been quite busy passing legislation, which the Senate just ignores. Of course you wouldn't expect a Republican Senate to simply rubber-stamp whatever comes out of a Democratic House. But nothing stops the Senate from passing its own version of, say, background checks or lowering drug prices or helping people save for retirement. Then there could be a House/Senate conference committee to work out the differences, the way Congress used to get things done.
As for Trump, it's absurd to claim that impeachment prevents him from working with Democrats on infrastructure, or any other common purpose he claims he wants. Both Nixon and Clinton took some pride in being able to keep doing their jobs in spite of distractions. (Much of what Clinton did to balance the budget was happening while he was under investigation or being impeached.) Trump alone thinks it makes sense to take his ball and go home until Nancy treats him better.
Impeachment will rile up Trump's base. I wish Democrats would stop thinking about Trump and his base the way some battered women think about their abusers: If dinner is on the table when he comes home and the house is ship-shape, maybe he won't hit me tonight.
You know what? Trump's base is going to be riled up from now on. Get used to it, because no matter what Democrats do, Trump will spin a story in which he is the most unfairly persecuted man in the history of politics. His idolaters will believe it, and they'll be hopping mad. It's already happening, and it's going to get worse. The Trumpist minority can threaten violence and even civil war if we don't do what they want. But if we're letting ourselves be ruled by a violent minority, if we are terrorized out of doing what is right and what the country needs, then there's already been a civil war and we lost.
Democrats should wait for the election. David Brooks makes this case, saying that impeachment is "elitist".
Elections give millions and millions of Americans a voice in selecting the president. This [impeachment] process gives 100 mostly millionaire senators a voice in selecting the president.
It's true that elections are the Constitution's primary method for getting rid of bad presidents. But what makes the Ukraine scandal stand out as impeachment material is that it's an attempt to cheat in the 2020 election. We can't just wait for the election if in the meantime we're doing nothing to stop Trump from cheating in that election.
So yes, Democrats should keep talking about healthcare and climate change and all the other important issues of America's future. But at the same time we have to do our best to make sure that a fair election is held at all. The only way we have to do that is to call attention to Trump's cheating and appeal to the American people's sense of fair play. That's what this whole process is about.
Wouldn't Pence be harder to beat in 2020? Trump, from this view, is an unpopular, damaged candidate. But Pence, being more like a typical Republican presidential candidate, could win back the never-Trumpers and the professional-class suburbanites, reunite the Republican coalition, and be a more formidable candidate in 2020.
I don't share this concern. If Trump is removed from office, or damaged to the point that he doesn't seek re-election, Pence will face the same problems Gore did in 2000: Does he embrace Trump or distance himself? Does he let Trump speak at the convention? Does he campaign with Trump? Should his rhetoric inflame the resentments resulting from the impeachment or try to move on? If he stays too close to Trump, he won't win back the people Trump alienated, and may risk being stained by whatever brought Trump down. But if he is too distant, Trump's base will resent his disloyalty.
Gore at least could run on Clinton's policies, which were fairly popular. (In The Onion, President-elect Bush assured America: "Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over.") But Trump's policies have never been popular: the border wall, standing with the NRA, making climate change worse, race baiting, gutting ObamaCare, shutting down immigration, palling around with Putin, the farm-destroying trade war with China, and so on. In addition, the issue Pence is most identified with personally is bigotry against gays and lesbians, which is also not popular.
True, Pence would not have to answer for Trump's long series of outrageous tweets. He could make his own version of Biden's case that the adults were in charge again. But Trump's base loves those tweets and doesn't want adults to be in charge. They identify with Trump because he insults all the people they wish they had the courage to insult, and defies the experts who make them feel stupid. If Pence tries to be an adult, or (even worse) a gentleman, they won't like him.
Picture 30,000 people showing up to hear Pence, hoping to be revved up the way Trump revved them up. Won't they leave disappointed?
So no: If Trump is removed, Pence is not a formidable candidate.
"… the way some battered women think about their abusers: If dinner is on the table when he comes home and the house is ship-shape, maybe he won't hit me tonight.".
Oy. I get your overall point, but that was perhaps not the best choice of analogies.
Thanks, one of your better essays. However, it still contains a nugget of naivety: that many people can be persuaded about Trump by logic and evidence. I recently had a conversation with some high school classmates (from 56 years ago!) where they expressed dismay at being characterized at being "criminals" because they were Democrats. This was from another classmate who had known my friend all of his life. The hard core base is not reachable.
If you are discussing this with someone from the hardcore base, you are probably right that they are not reachable. However, if this discussion is at a gathering or on social media — anywhere where others will be watching the interchange, — you do it not for the hard core guy, but for the lurkers. The silent watchers. Because they may be reachable. They hear what you say and think about it. So remain polite but firm and clear. It can help.
I think you missed one other reason to worry about impeachment; what does an acquittal mean if/when the Senate acquits Trump? I am not sure that isna good enough reason to oppose impeachment at this point., but the idea that Trump would call himself acquitted is concerning.
Well, if we don't impeach at all, he will also claim exoneration, so it's not clear to me that we'd be any worse off. And if damning evidence is presented in the investigation but the Senate acquits anyway, the story could easily be "Corrupt Republicans cover for their corrupt President" instead of "Trump did nothing wrong."
Also, the whistleblower complaint falls within several hearsay exceptions. George Conways explained this succinctly to Lindsey Graham.
Linda Tripp wasn't present when Clinton and Lewinsky were doing whatever they did, and "Deep Throat" wasn't at the Watergate break-in, either.
For me EVERY issue hinges on a single question: what course will most likely help us move toward dealing with global warming? The 2020 house and senate races were going to be predominated by support or opposition to trump. If Trump is impeached and convicted by the Senate, I am afraid that removing Trump will make Democratic control of the senate even more difficult to achieve.
What about the one I hear from other liberals – that impeachment will make Trump a "martyr" and motivate his base to turn out for him in greater numbers? This has been the biggest objection to impeachment, at least until now.
When I want some clarity on what is going on with the trump presidency, I read this blog. I find that clarity in the straightforward way in which it is written.
I am not a fan of the Joe Biden candidacy. I think Joe has done a fine job in the Senate (for the most part) and he was an excellent Vice President to Barack Obama. I think it's time for him to rest on his laurels and act the part of elder statesman. He has much to offer others running for office… not just the presidency. Whether he can or will do that is anybody's guess.
As I read this posting, I kept thinking about an article that I read in The Atlantic the other day called "Hunter Biden's Perfectly Legal, Socially Acceptable Corruption." It lays out why both Democrats and Republicans benefit from their positions in government. Most telling was the assertion that Hunter Biden would not have gotten the job on the board of Burisma without his father's name and position as his way in. (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/hunter-bidens-legal-socially-acceptable-corruption/598804/)
It is the "legal, socially acceptable corruption" against which many progressives (including me) rail. I will be 72 years old in 11 days. I am a Vietnam Era veteran. I lived through Watergate, watching the hearings live on television. I want to see both Biden and Sanders drop out of the race. The sooner this happens, the better off I believe the country will be. We have more than enough younger, and far more capable candidates (IMHO) than either of these old, white men. Obviously, comes the Primary in my state, I will not be voting for either.
I am not naive. Even the progressive, younger candidates all have some baggage, but they are smart enough to want to distance themselves from it. (No, I still don't know who I will vote FOR. All the poles asking that question seem far to early in the process for truly intelligent answers. I do wish they would poll to see who people will NOT vote for.)