Politics / February 15, 2024

The Mayorkas Impeachment Is Just the Latest GOP Stunt

The inquisition of the secretary of Homeland Security, without any evidence to speak of, does little other than rile up the MAGA base—and its leader.

Chris Lehmann
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas is sworn in during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on November 15, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

In another low parody of constitutional oversight, the House’s GOP majority has transformed the act of impeachment—envisioned by the nation’s founders as a critical proceeding to root out self-dealing corruption in high federal office—into a vibes-driven instrument of ideological retribution. In a narrow 214-213 vote on Tuesday evening, the House impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for doing his job in a manner that the Republican conference doesn’t like. Mayorkas thus became the first sitting cabinet member to be impeached. (Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of war, William Belknap, was impeached on corruption charges in 1876, but after he’d already resigned.)

The two articles of impeachment filed against Mayorkas cited, without real evidence, his alleged “willful and systemic refusal to comply with the law” and a similarly ill-specified breach of public trust. The slapdash character of the proceeding was right there in the ungrammatical attribution of a “systemic” trespass to a single human actor, as well as in the first stab at the Homeland Security secretary’s impeachment just a week ago, which failed to muster the majority required to see it through to passage. So congratulations, Mr. Speaker: You’ve won a purely symbolic show-trial indictment of a randomly designated political enemy in the bonus round.

The Mayorkas impeachment is bound to collapse in the Democratic-controlled Senate, when a formal trial is scheduled to take place later this month the under the supervision of Washington Senator Patty Murray. But as with virtually all other activity emanating from the House these days, the point of the proceeding was not to yield tangible results but rather to produce the level of confrontational sound and fury demanded by Donald Trump, the Caligulan bully who oversees the steady transformation of the GOP into a brown-shirted theater of punishment and grievance. Trump has long been agitating for Republican lawmakers to use their investigative powers to exact vengeance for his 2019 and 2021 impeachments. That’s been the all-too-blatant through line of the House’s most high-profile probes, from the Hunter Biden pile-ons in the oversight panel to the serial Chris Wray inquisitions in the judiciary committee. With the Mayorkas impeachment, the months-long snipe hunt has yielded, if not a material and legal victory, a campaign-ready talking point for the 2024 Trump reelection campaign: The Democratic-led chaos at the southern border compelled the vigilant Real Americans in the GOP conference to face down the immigrant “invasion” by placing the lead Biden immigration official on a path to expulsion or worse.

Never mind, just for starters, that the same House GOP loudly and repeatedly signaled that it was going to shitcan the months-long Senate accord that yielded more hard-line immigration crackdowns, sending the one bit of border-driven policymaking on Capitol Hill to its swift and efficient doom. No House Republican is about to advance something as dreary and mundane as legislation when a telegenic hearing or a high-rhetorical litany of criminal allegations is on offer. To compound the sheer bootlessness of the Mayorkas inquiry, much of it centered around the secretary’s allegedly dilatory handling of the asylum process. If asylum review were performed to the apparent standards of the corps of inspector Javerts conducting House business under Johnson, it would vastly increase the backlog of prospective entrants at the border. And more to the point, the relevant federal agency overseeing asylum claims isn’t Homeland Security—it’s the State Department. The whole spectacle was akin to challenging a speeding ticket from the DMV at the health department.

This willful misdirection of time and resources is, as it happens, the other ultimate aim of the proceeding: In addition to handing Mayorkas to Team Trump as a rally-ready scapegoat, Tuesday’s impeachment vote serves to strategically miniaturize and dumb down the impeachment process into a glorified partisan cudgel. “Even viewed in the most charitable light, the House’s articles of impeachment against Secretary Mayorkas boil down to a disagreement about policy or an opinion about Mayorkas’s job performance,” says Praveen Fernandes, vice president of the D.C.-based Constitutional Accountability Center. “But those don’t come close to satisfying the ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors’ standard required by the Constitution’s Impeachment Clause. The framers of this constitutional provision knew about the much broader British impeachment power, and they considered and specifically rejected adding ‘maladministration’ to the grounds identified as a basis for impeachment in the United States Constitution. The House’s articles of impeachment seem motivated by base political calculations, not by any genuine belief that the high standard for impeachment set out in the Constitution is satisfied.”

Of course, past impeachment inquiries, like the rest of our politics, have always been partisan, from Andrew Johnson to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump. Yet unlike the Mayorkas vote, those proceedings had actual grounding in legal claims—Johnson had flouted legislation passed by Radical Republicans to expedite Reconstruction, while Clinton had concealed the truth before a special prosecutor’s legal team. And Trump’s two impeachments teemed with legal and constitutional justifications: first, for commandeering promised aid to Ukraine to publicize bogus charges of Hunter Biden’s influence-peddling on his dad’s behalf in the country, and then for overthrowing a free and fair election and promoting a coup in the run-up to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. It was only the venal power-mongering of then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell that spared Trump a first-ever Senate conviction for an impeached president in the wake of his flagrant abuses of power in plotting out the failed coup on January 6.

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Indeed, another grim grace note in the Mayorkas farce stemmed from a release of damning documents from Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin, the ranking member on the House Oversight Committee. Raskin assembled a damning report showing that Trump had improperly profited from his term in office to the tune of more than $7 million: a clear violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which is a textbook instance of the sort of corruption that the founders instituted impeachment to remedy. Raskin’s revelations barely dented the debased, campaign-driven news cycle–while the content-free Mayorkas vote will drive commentary for weeks on end, just as Johnson and Trump intended.

The deeper distemper here is the same one that afflicts all our politics in the age of Trump—the rush to translate any and all political dictums into the register of authoritarian whim. This is the other message of the Mayorkas impeachment: It’s very much of a piece with the plans already on the books for a second Trump administration to round up migrants into detention camps for mass deportations, to convert the federal workforce into a new model MGA army, and to continue the ideological pillaging of the justice system from the right. In other words, the show trials could be just beginning.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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