The framing of the public debate among House Democrats suggests that only craven political considerations would block an immediate move to impeach President Donald Trump. But there is a more principled rationale for not leaping to impeachment.
To advance their congressional agenda — an infrastructure plan, affordable and available health care coverage, a policy to fight climate change and true draining of the public corruption swamp — House Democrats must try to lead the entire Congress to rise above tribal gridlock.
If Trump is allowed to credibly advance the idea that House Democrats are hellbent on a so-called deep-state coup, that would poison the legislative well even if Democrats win in 2020.
Trump also would play to conspiracy theories that resonate with more than a third of voters. Even if the House votes for impeachment, a failure of the Senate to convict Trump and remove him from office would be trumpeted by the president as vindication in 2020.
Nevertheless, House Democrats should not give up their investigations or give Trump a free pass on the most serious findings in the Mueller report. There are four intermediate steps the House Democrats should take.
1. They must expand their investigative reach to get to the bottom of what the Mueller report lays out. The move by House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler to sue to get the unredacted report makes sense. In addition, he should push for Attorney General William Barr, special counsel Robert Mueller and former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify publicly before the committee to establish whether Trump obstructed justice.
2. Given Rudy Giuliani’s statement that there is “nothing wrong” with a presidential campaign taking information from a foreign adversary, House Democrats must push for a bill to make it illegal for any candidates or campaign to take information from a foreign adversary. They should pass the bill and put the question to the Republican-controlled Senate. Does the GOP want to protect our democracy?
3. Because not nearly enough attention has been paid to catalog all of the Russian interference in 2016, House Democrats must hold hearings so that the public realizes the extent of the Kremlin’s skulduggery.
4. House Democrats should understand that impeachment is not the only option. Censure resolutions carry great impact. The end of McCarthyism was precipitated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy being censured in the Senate, not expelled from office. In 1834, President Andrew Jackson was censured by both houses of Congress along with Roger Taney, then-treasury secretary, for not turning over essential documents after Jackson vetoed legislation to recharter the Bank of the United States.
If Trump continues to stonewall the legitimate oversight of the House, especially after the Mueller report, Jackson’s censure is a mighty precedent for punishing the executive for ignoring legitimate congressional oversight. If after all the hearings, the House Judiciary Committee believes Trump’s actions merit punishment, the House could determine that a vote of censure provides the punishment of indelible shame, far more that an impeachment, which the GOP-controlled Senate could ignore.
House Democrats should not be guided by political fear, but by purposeful action in deciding whether to launch an impeachment process against Trump. The best available deterrent to Trump creating a precedent for trampling constitutional norms is to sustain those norms with congressional action designed to secure the consent of the governed.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
Correction: The first name of Sen. Joseph McCarthy was incorrect in an earlier version of this op-ed.