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No Longer Crying Wolf: Why the GOP Went Cold on Calling for Impeachment

October 3, 2019
No Longer Crying Wolf: Why the GOP Went Cold on Calling for Impeachment

Impeachment does strange things to people. With the revelation that President Donald Trump asked the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden as a personal favor—and the subsequent creation of an impeachment inquiry in the House—lots of Republicans are . . . evolving.

Some people—for instance, Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham—have suddenly reversed their positions on foreign interference in American elections.

Others have stroked their beards and worried about how terrible it is that Democrats are wasting the country’s time with impeachment. Or how unfair it is that they’re rushing ahead without the facts. Or how awful it is that Democrats irrationally hate Trump and view him as illegitimate.

Ted Cruz trotted out all three of these non-defenses over the last few days. Which is fine. Ted Cruz is gonna Ted Cruz.

Yet I couldn’t help but think how different his response was back when Sen. Cruz was asked about impeaching President Barack Obama.

Because you may not remember this—it was practically six years ago!—but once upon a time, Republicans were pretty into the idea of impeachment.

Back in 2013 Ted Cruz was giving a speech in Conroe, Texas, when an audience member asked, “Why don’t we impeach him [Obama]?”

Cruz’s response: “It’s a good question.” The only reason not to impeach Obama, he said, was purely tactical: Not enough votes in the Senate. A few months later, Cruz sat down for an interview with Newsmax and was asked about impeaching Obama again. He ducked and swerved. He said that Obama’s “lawless” behavior was “deeply dangerous.” But he wouldn’t say, No. This is stupid. You don’t impeach presidents just because you dislike them.

You have to look at the transcript to see how far out of his way Cruz went not to criticize the idea of impeaching Obama:

Newsmax: Is that unconstitutional?

Cruz: It’s completely unconstitutional.

Newsmax: Impeachable?

Cruz: You know, Article II of the Constitution gives the president the responsibility to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed.’ We have never seen a president behave like President Obama, who believes he can just pick and choose. He’ll enforce this law, not enforce another law. I mean that is—

Newsmax: Impeachable?

Cruz: Deeply dangerous.

You know, that’s a question for the House, ultimately. The House, under the Constitution, makes the decision whether to impeach, and then the Senate is charged with trying it. So, that’s a question for the House to assess.

Newsmax: Would you urge them to consider it?

Cruz: You know, any impeachment would have to be tried in the United States Senate, so my responsibility would be to render judgment. I would not want to urge the House to do anything other than exercise its best judgment, and I would endeavor to the same on my end.

Rafael Edward Cruz, America’s grand constitutional conservative, didn’t want to influence members of the House of Representatives by saying outright that President Obama should be impeached. But he didn’t want to say that Obama shouldn’t be impeached, either. So instead he gifted unto the nation his Solomonic refusal to say what he thought about impeachment at all, even though—nudge-nudge, wink-wink—what are you supposed to do with “deeply dangerous,” “lawless” presidents?

Cruz’s reticence has disappeared now that we’re talking about Trump.

Two weeks into the first revelations of Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine, Cruz is comfortable declaring that the House impeachment inquiry is merely an attemptto find any reason under the sun to impeach the president and undo the results of the last election.”

Also that this impeachment inquiry is a “circus” with “three rings with all the clowns.” 

And then he told Chris Hayes, “The fact that he shouldn’t have gone down that road is a long way from saying, ‘Therefore, he should be impeached and forcibly removed from office after the American people have voted in a presidential election.’ That is a big threshold, and there are a lot of Democrats who I think . . . they’re not focused on the facts. They want him impeached, and whatever the facts are are fine.”

Got that? When the issue is impeaching Obama, Cruz didn’t want to prejudge anything. He wanted to focus on letting the House do its job of deliberating on articles of impeachment, after which he would exercise his best judgment—but only after taking in the full array of facts.

Now that the issue is impeaching Trump, Cruz has looked at two weeks worth of facts and knows enough to declare that this entire House “circus” is nothing more than “an attempt find any reason under the sun to impeach the president and undo the results of the last election.”

Not that he’s prejudging the case.

I don’t mean to pick on Ted Cruz—he’s actually better than most Republicans and members of Conservatism Inc. Because at least he didn’t go around affirmatively banging the drum for impeaching Obama. He obviously realized it was silly. All he did was try to dance around the idea without hurting the tender feelings of the conservative base.

There were a lot of Republicans who were worse than Cruz. Much worse.

Consider Allen West. The former congressman and professional huckster spent years calling for the impeachment of Barack Obama. On Trump? After two weeks he’s weighed all the evidence and got it all figured out:

Over the course of the Obama administration a long list of Republican office-holders danced around the idea of impeachment: Rep. Darrell Issa, Rep. Michael Burgess, Sen. Tom Coburn, Sen. Jon Kyl, Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, Rep. Steve Stockman, Rep. Blake Farenthold, Rep. Bill Flores. This is not an exhaustive list.

You may have forgotten, but House Republicans even called a hearing where they talked about impeachment—in a totally theoretical, not about any particular president—kind of way. Because there were serious issues that Needed. To. Be. Investigated.

And in fairness to Republicans, these concerns might have been overblown, but they weren’t totally baseless. There were aspects of the Obama administration that were at best imprudent expansions of the executive and at worst a lawless, faithless execution of presidential authority.

Were they impeachable? Well, yes. And no.

“Yes” in the sense that everything is impeachable because impeachment is a political, not a legal, process.

“No” in the sense that none of Obama’s actions seemed to especially bother a majority of the citizenry and the desire for impeachment never ran much higher than a third of the country.

Still—a third of the country is a lot of people! You could win the nomination of a major political party with a third of the country backing you!

Which, come to think of it, someone did. After all, what was birtherism except a processless conspiracy designed to give its adherents all the benefits of impeachment proceedings with none of the actual work?

Because however much Republicans talked about the Constitution and abuse of executive authority and Benghazi, the truth is that mostly Republicans just had a lot feelings about Barack Obama that they needed to work out in public.

Sarah Palin, for her part, had all the feelings:

It’s time to impeach; and on behalf of American workers and legal immigrants of all backgrounds, we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment. The many impeachable offenses of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored. If after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.

But what does Palin think about the impeachment of Donald Trump? Well, on her Facebook page she recently posted a link to a $50,000 reward for anyone who reveals the identity of the whistleblower.

So, you know, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

There’s a lot more where that came from. Media Matters took the trouble of building an entire compendium of the Impeach Obama movement. You will perhaps be unsurprised that at one point or another Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, “Judge” Jeanine Pirro, Pat Buchanan, Michelle Malkin, and Rush Limbaugh all claimed that Obama had committed “impeachable” offenses or demanded his impeachment.

To my knowledge, none of these figures has even said that they are reserving judgment on the Trump impeachment inquiry until an investigation has revealed all of the relevant facts.

Then again, you didn’t expect them to, did you?

Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not the already-proven facts concerning Trump and Ukraine are sufficient to warrant impeachment. 

But reasonable people can not have argued that Obama committed impeachable offenses and that we already know, for sure, that Trump has not.

Anyone from this Venn diagram who now wants to con-splain to you why akshually, Trump did nothing wrong and this is just a coup attempt by politically-motivated Democrats who are rushing to conclusions is a bad-actor or a hack.

There is no reason you—or anyone else—should put stock in anything they say.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.