Impeachment is not hard.
The only thing that complicates the process is the penchant of politicians—some well-intended but cautious, some cynical and scheming—to weigh things down with too many strategies, dodges, delays, and compromises.
Let’s keep this in mind, now that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic Caucus leaders have announced a formal impeachment inquiry into allegations that President Donald Trump pressured the leader of Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden’s family. Pelosi said, “The actions taken to date by the president have seriously violated the Constitution.” She also says that “the president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”
Presuming Pelosi is correct, and presuming that she allows the House Judiciary Committee to do its job in the days and weeks to come, let’s review the steps that are required to get impeachment right.
Identify clear abuses of power that can be broadly understood as affronts to the president’s oath of office, which requires him to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” If the president used his office to get a foreign government to investigate a political rival, with an eye toward undermining that rival, that’s a clear abuse of power that assaults the basic premises of American democracy. As Ron Fein, the legal director of the constitutional law group Free Speech for People, says, “Trump’s Ukraine scandal is an impeachable offense,” explaining that the House inquiry must examine the extent to which the president has been “improperly directing or endeavoring to direct a foreign power to investigate his own political adversaries.” Similarly, if the president used his position to enrich himself or his family, that is an equally clear abuse of power that violates the Constitution’s emoluments clauses. Historic impeachment inquiries have been most effective when they have avoided examining laundry lists of impeachable offenses and paid attention to the most serious and provable complaints. Former House Judiciary Committee chair Peter Rodino and the team that went after President Richard Nixon in 1974 had many options; they settled on three and wrote articles of impeachment that were summed up in roughly three pages.
Set a timetable, and follow it. Dragging the House inquiry out for months is neither wise nor necessary. A number of public interest groups that have been advocating for impeachment—including Democracy for America, CREDO Action, Free Speech for People, By the People, and the Courage Campaign recently proposed the following time frame: “1. The House Judiciary Committee votes on articles of impeachment against President Trump by November 1, 2019; 2. The full US House of Representatives votes on articles of impeachment against President Trump by November 15, 2019.” That’s reasonable. It also guards against the mistake of letting the process get bogged down or delayed by complex legal strategies or fights over information that the White House refuses to release.
Go to court where necessary, but make sure that it is necessary. And make sure that any request is framed in clear and immediate terms. At every step, maintain the sense of urgency that was expressed by Representative John Lewis when he said on Tuesday, “We cannot delay. We must not wait. Now is the time to act. I have been patient while we tried every other path and used every other tool. We will never find the truth unless we use the power given to the House of Representatives and the House alone to begin an official investigation as dictated by the Constitution. The future of our democracy is at stake.”
Do Not Be Distracted By Trump.
Even as Pelosi was preparing to make her announcement, the president was trying to game the process by proposing to release the unredacted transcript of his July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That was a obvious attempt to make Pelosi blink. She didn’t blink this time. But there will be more attempts. And there will be over-the-top demands to investigate Biden. So be it. The job of Congress is to check and balance wrongdoing by the president, not do his political bidding. The president will employ every trick to protect himself. Respond to his political gamesmanship as does constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe when he says, “Trump’s ever-shifting story is a study in slow-mo self-immolation. Sad to watch. Although I must admit a tiny bit of, well, good old schadenfreude.”
Educate, Educate, Educate.
There is immense confusion regarding impeachment. Too many Americans think of it as a legal process, rather than a political process. Too many Americans confuse the vote of the House to approve articles of impeachment with the vote of the Senate on whether to remove the target of those articles from office. Trump and his supporters will seek to exploit this confusion. The best way to counter them is by using hearings and debates, media appearances, and public events to explain the process at every step along the way and to put charges against Trump in context.
Speak of a sense of duty and responsibility, as did Michigan Representative Elissa Slotkin, a former intelligence officer and Defense Department official who last year won a historically Republican seat for the Democrats; she said on Monday, “I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. If true, these new allegations against the President are a threat to our national security, and constitute an impeachable offense.”
Don’t worry about polls at the start of the process. Worry about providing the information that is necessary so that, when formal articles of impeachment are written, those who are polled will fully understand why the president needs to be held to account—and why it is appropriate for the House to act.
Don’t Fret About the Senate.
It’s the job of the House to forward articles of impeachment to the Senate. It’s the job of the Senate to determine whether the president is held to account. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republican Caucus may reject accountability. Then it is on them. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got it precisely right when she explained earlier this month:
We have to do our job. Once the House impeaches, the House has impeached the president and then that hearing goes to the Senate. If they want to fail it then I want to see every Republican go on the record and knowingly vote against impeachment of this president—knowing his corruption, having it on the record so that they can have that stain on their careers for the rest of their lives because this is outrageous to protect the amount of lawlessness and corruption coming out of this presidency.