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One Big Reason “Bad But Not Impeachable” Is Wrong

It's like saying we'll wait to see if Lance Armstrong wins the Tour de France before we decide whether or not he was doping.
October 17, 2019
One Big Reason “Bad But Not Impeachable” Is Wrong

As the drip-drip-drip of revelations about the misadventures of Donald Trump and his Keystone diplomats in Ukraine has come to light, it has become impossible for all but Trump’s most shameless sycophants to argue that these actions are a “nothing-burger” or a “baseless witch hunt.”

Instead, the respectable Trump defender has moved on to arguing that, sure, what Trump did was bad.

Bad . . . but not impeachable. And certainly not removable.

To be honest, this argument resonated with me a lot at first.

“Is this really the thing that is going to get him?” a friend asked in the days after the whistleblower report went public. It was hard for me to say yes with any confidence. It seemed implausible that a politician who has survived multiple sexual assault allegations, a special counsel investigation which provided incontrovertible evidence of obstruction of justice, corruption in plain sight, an illegal porn star pay off—and so much more—would get taken down by some low-rent goombas trying to bully the president of Ukraine.

Everyone has an imaginary bar in their head on what action feels like it should merit impeachment and this scandal, which has been aptly referred to as Moron-Contra, hasn’t always felt as if it has the gravity of even some of the other actions of this president.

And yet . . .

Once you set aside the utterly farcical behavior of the president, the gin-soaked incompetence of his personal attorney, and their general inability to actually execute a scheme, what is left is an extra-legal attempt to shake down a foreign government to interfere in the next U.S. election through a fabricated investigation against his most dangerous opponent.

And it is at the phrase “next U.S. election” where the “bad-but-not-impeachable” argument pretty much falls apart.

The case against impeachment has been laid out by many people, some of whom are arguing in good faith and some of whom are not.

But no matter who is making the argument, the thrust of the case mostly boils down to the notion that we can’t overturn the “will of the people.” This argument is made in a variety of ways and the sands are always shifting. For instance, the “will of the people” who voted to make Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House seems not to matter.

Senator Lamar Alexander made it prospectively: “It’s inappropriate for the president to be talking with foreign governments about investigating his political opponents, but impeachment would be a mistake. An election, which is just around the corner, is the right way to decide who should be president.”

While Rich Lowry (and others) have argued that impeachment is tantamount to nullifying the last election: “If Trump were for some reason actually removed on anything like the current universe of possible evidence, it would create a crisis of legitimacy at the heart of our government. Think of what the U.K. is going through with Brexit, only worse. Ten of millions of Trump voters would feel cheated and disenfranchised.”

And Tucker Carlson and Neal Patel make the case on both grounds: “So, now, as we are on the eve of another election season, our political class wants to take the most recent election away from the voters. Millions of Americans voted for Trump to try to shock our political system into finally listening to their concerns. How do you suppose they’ll feel about a system that instead removes Trump from our democracy?”

The problem with these arguments is that they are predicated on one important fact —that our elections are fair and free from unlawful interference, foreign or domestic. And the action at the heart of the impeachment question is a blatant attempt by the president to use his office to improperly interfere with the next election.

How then can you argue that the judgment for improper election interference should be the very election that the perpetrator was interfering with? This makes no sense. It is akin to the Tour de France saying that the verdict on Lance Armstrong’s doping should be whether or not he still wins the bike race he was just caught cheating in.

The 2016 election is not under threat of being negated. Donald Trump assumed the office of the presidency. I watched it with my own eyes. It was some pretty weird shit. Once he got there, impeachment became the constitutional remedy for removing him in the case of high crimes and misdemeanors while in office. Had he not had any misdemeanors after getting elected, impeachment would not be a serious issue. If you think impeachment is the same thing as a “Deep State coup” then what you’re really saying is that you don’t think the Constitution is an adequate guide to how our government should be run. In which case, Donald Trump is the least of our problems.

And as to the 2016 election that despite winning, Trump and his enablers are obsessed with relitigating, that part of the Ukraine scandal while nutso (technical term) isn’t the operative issue. If Trump had only sent Zelensky on an insane wild goose chase to uncover “the truth” about the 2016 election by finding the real DNC server that Sean Hannity told him was hidden somewhere in Zaporozhye, then I could understand coming to the conclusion that the president is merely a dangerous fool in need of a head exam, but not impeachment.

But that isn’t the question at hand. According to testimony by Fiona Hill this week, the ambassador to the E.U., Godon Sondland, told Ukranians at Trump’s request that they would only get a meeting with the president if they opened an investigation into Hunter Biden.

This was a single-minded attempt to interfere in the very election that Sen. Alexander thinks should decide Trump’s fate. And as former Vice President Biden pointed out at the debate this week, he has now on three separate occasions invited foreign interference into U.S. elections. Given all the other tools at the president’s disposal to tilt the electoral scales, how can he possibly be entrusted to stay in office and oversee a fair election?

In some ways, the “he isn’t serious about this” Rubio defense—while being more obtuse and morally bankrupt—is also more internally consistent than acknowledging the obvious attempts to improperly game the election, Trump’s willingness to continue to do so, and then saying you want that election to be the jury.

That’s why, no matter the absurdity or incompetence of the actions, the only logical conclusion to the fact pattern is that President Trump needs to be not only impeached, but removed from office. Any other solution will do exactly what Trump’s defenders claim to fear: undermine the legitimacy of our political system.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.