So that’s it from Robert Mueller. He’s not going to say anything more. He’s not going to tell us what he really thinks about any of this. As for whether Donald Trump committed a crime, he was clear in the press conference: “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing…”
That process of course is Congress, starting with the House of Representatives. And within minutes of Mueller saying goodbye, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler picked up the baton: “Given that Special Counsel Mueller was unable to pursue criminal charges against the President, it falls to Congress to respond to the crimes, lies, and other wrongdoing of President Trump—and we will do so. No one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law.”
In other words, we are headed to impeachment-land. Which means we’re headed for a political apocalypse that will be uglier than anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes and will leave no one satisfied.
Why? Because the “process” is broken. Irrevocably broken. Broken mostly by Trump, and by Mitch McConnell. But broken. And unfixable. It terrifies me where this is going to end.
Here’s what’s likely to unfold as Trump declares, yet again, “The case is closed! Thank you.”: More and more Democrats are going to embrace opening a formal impeachment inquiry. Perhaps more of the Democratic presidential candidates will join Elizabeth Warren in calling for impeachment. Pressure on Nancy Pelosi is going to grow and grow, and fast.
We’ll see if public opinion changes as a result of what Mueller said Wednesday. My guess is it won’t very much, at least among independents and Republicans. So overall, let’s say public opinion is still against impeachment. But support within the Democratic Party is growing.
I don’t think Pelosi will be able to resist that for very much longer. By sometime this fall, impeachment hearings are going to start. There’s just too much rage out there for it not to happen.
What happens next, though, will determine whether it ends up being a politically smart decision or just something that ended up helping Trump get re-elected.
Let me pause here and state again my position on this. Does Donald Trump deserve impeachment, legally and constitutionally? Yes. No doubt about that whatsoever.
But here’s my question. Is your chief goal seeing Trump impeached, or seeing his tenure as president be as brief as possible? Because those are two very different questions.
My goal is emphatically the second one. I want him out of the White House. That’s job number one: to see someone else standing up there taking the oath of office in January 2021.
So the question about impeachment is, does it make that more likely or less likely? Because remember this sadly inescapable fact. Impeachment will not remove Trump from office. If the House votes three articles of impeachment, along strictly partisan lines with the except of Justin Amash, it goes to the Senate for votes on conviction, and we all know that there is just no way 20-something Republican senators are going to vote to remove Trump from office. So McConnell will engineer a vote with maximum political timing to clear Trump, and that will be that. It will be over. Sometime next summer, say, just in time for the Republican convention.
Then, at that point, the question will be whether the whole process has made the country, and its swing voters, more or less inclined to vote Trump out of office? That’s the question. And it is the only question.
And that brings the focus back to the House, and Nadler, and how the Judiciary Committee handles the hearings. There’s a school of thought that says hold the hearings, and the evidence uncovered in the course of them will move public opinion in the direction of wanting Trump not just impeached but also convicted.
That might be right; maybe televised hearings will dramatize Trump’s misdemeanors and high crimes in a way that hundreds of written pages could not. If it’s apparent by next summer that that’s what the American people believe, then it’ll be clear that the Republicans are thwarting the people’s will, and Trump—and Senate and House Republicans—will pay the price.
But if the hearings don’t move the needle—and we know after these last years that, evidence be damned, the needle is not easily moved—then all the Democrats have done is help boost Trump’s re-election chances. They’ll have done the right thing legally and constitutionally. But what good is that, if Donald Trump is the president for four more years? No good at all.
It’s a horrible dilemma, and anyone who doesn’t recognize it as the core dilemma here just isn’t reckoning with the reality.
So, final point: The Democrats’ job in impeachment hearings, assuming they open them, is to hold them in such a way that the chief goal is to incrementally move public opinion toward the conclusion that Trump should be removed from office. I’m not sure what that means specifically, especially if they can’t get Don McGahn and other administration officials to testify. But it means they need to appear to be doing this in as nonpartisan a way as possible—in this acrid atmosphere.
Mueller himself could have helped move the needle, with even just a judiciously chosen phrase or two. But he has chosen not to do that. He’s tossed the crisis off to a “process” that he himself must surely know is broken and totally incapable of finding a solution.
It was inevitable from the day Trump took office that it was going to come this. We can only hope that this crisis of his making helps drive him from office, and does not not help him stay there. It’s no sure thing.