To an extent, I am already burnt out and cynical about this entire process. Late 2015 onward has been one long process of completing jading any of my remaining idealism about the American partisan system. To me, the outcome is entirely predetermined. Republicans will conjure any excuse, regardless of how absurd or irrelevant to dismiss the accusation. Democrats will vote for impeachment as long as the poll numbers support it. Absent some major, life-shattering revelation, Senate Republicans will not vote for removal, whereas House Democrats will vote for impeachment. Meanwhile, 2020 looms closer. It’s all so tiresome.
Part of the reason for the burn out is that this does not seem all that exciting. It barely smacks of bribery and is hardly treason. It would fall under the extremely broad catch-all of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is largely whatever the House decides it means. While the accusation is a serious one, it is hardly the stuff of a Tom Clancy thriller.
Why the president should be impeached and removed
For now, the facts seem pretty obvious. The testimony of Vindman, Taylor, Sondland’s reversal and the very transcript itself lays out a fairly simple story. President Trump wanted political vindication. Fed bizarre and unproven conspiracies dating back to 2016, Trump wanted to score points against his most likely 2020 opponent. To this point, he suspended US military aid to Ukraine (voted on by a bipartisan majority and signed off by the president), in order to pressure the Ukrainian government to publicly announce an investigation into the Bidens. To sum up it as the Democrats have done in the House, the president pressured a foreign government to produce dirt on his political opponent.
To me, this narrative seems the most likely. The first question is whether or not the call constituted “quid pro quo.” Not only is this the most obvious, face-value reading of the transcript, but by nature, calls between world leaders (in particular between patron and client) are quid pro quo. The key isn’t was the president pressuring the Ukrainians by withholding aid, but rather was it a legitimate ask on behalf of the president.
Which leads to the second issue. On one hand, there seems to be a legitimate defense. The president clearly has a national interest in rooting out influence-peddling and corruption. This is almost certainly what Hunter Biden was doing. Pretending that Hunter Biden’s “career” does not fit any normal person’s definition of soft corruption (at best) is naive in the extreme. Arguably if the president was motivated by a civic good (rooting out corruption), then the quid pro quo isn’t a form of bribery but rather legitimate pressure on a client state to secure a legitimate end. Here’s the problem: everything the president did suggests that he was not motivated by any civic duty but rather venal, political motives. In this, I will show my cards and admit my bias. I think very little of Mr. Trump’s character. To me, he is a man of absolutely no virtue; civic, personal or otherwise. The level of credulity that people extend the president is truly baffling and the fact the American political system produced such a man to be the chief executive is a damning indictment of how our system does not produce statesmen in any real sense.
However, I think there is reason to suppose a corrupt motive on the part of the president beyond my own suspicions. Consider the fact that Trump did not order a DOJ investigation, using proper channels to ensure political propriety. Trump did not do this but rather demanded a public announcement of an investigation from the Ukrainian president and prosecutor-general. That’s not demanding an investigation, which may or may not produce a certain legal outcome, but what would be a public political spectacle, which does produce a certain political outcome. Lastly, Ukraine is a country functionally at war with the Russian Federation, facing an immense military challenge. It beggars belief that a Ukrainian president would not do anything, produce any “evidence,” in order to maintain a pipeline of weaponry to even the odds. Ukraine also suffers from an endemic corruption problem, in particular in its prosecutorial service. Pretending a Ukrainian investigation would be free of political motive and corrupt dealings, is absurd.
This means (so far) the House narrative is largely accurate: the president pressured a foreign government to cook up accusations in order to frame a political opponent for political motive. This not only undermines faith in the American political system, but it is a textbook example of an abuse of power. It is exactly the type of crooked dealing and maladministration that was held to be an impeachable offense by the Framers.
The GOP will say that other presidents have done worse. This is true. President Obama deserved to be impeached for both conducting an illegal war in Libya and for the extrajudicial assassination (read: murder) of natural-born American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Fortunately for Obama, House Republicans were more enamored of blowing people up in the Middle East than they were of the US Constitution. President Bush’s civil liberties curtailment and general mishandling of the Iraq war almost certainly constituted an impeachable offense (if blowing through trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives to irreparably wound American influence across the world is not maladministration then nothing is). Neither Messrs. Bush nor Obama are the president. Donald J. Trump is. To refuse to call power to account on the basis that the powers that be declined to do so at other moments is to functionally write a blank check to future abuses of power.
What worries me about impeachment
All of that being said, I do worry what would happen in the event of President Trump’s removal. Despite what Republicans may think, it would not “undo the 2016 election.”
Hillary does not get to come out of the wings to finish up Trump’s term. In many ways, President Pence would be a nice change of pace. However, I worry about what removal would do to the GOP in two particular ways.
One, a removed Trump does not mean the American political process is free of him. The descent into a total self-pitying, rage-fueled meltdown would be complete, dragging Republicans behind him. The suicide bomber faction of the GOP would be influential for years and would be out for blood, further coarsening American politics.
But more importantly, I worry that the GOP establishment and Conservatism Inc. would learn functionally nothing. Under President Pence I could see the establishment thinking they will merely go back to 2012. There are two positive trends in the conservative movement. The first is an increased skepticism of neoconservatism and the wars it fueled. Thanks to the Bush years, the country was bankrupted, terrorism spiked, thousands of Americans died and violence was wreaked upon the entire Middle East. And for what? What national interest of the United States was served? Meanwhile, great powers like Russia and China got to modernize their military forces while our military grew weaker. Guided correctly, the current trend could return Republicans back to their realist roots. Post-Trump removal, I could easily see us going back to 2003.
The second positive trend is American conservatism under Trump is growing less enamored with libertarian economics and free-market absolutism. Can you imagine a Rubio speech looking like this during the 2012 primary? Increasingly, the GOP is realizing that conservatism, with its suspicion of centralized power, emphasis on continuity/tradition, and rejection of utopian thinking, has little in common with a libertarian view of the Market. Turns out, while socialism remains terrible and private property is an irreplaceable part of a prosperous economy, the market was made for man and not man for the market. Traditionally Anglo-American conservatism was not always merely a formalized worship of a lower capital gains tax rate and a higher stock market index. While Trump has hardly been a model conservative-populist, the GOP would probably ditch any nascent national conservative economic agenda outside of tanking American trade relations and scapegoating Mexican immigration. Any progress in making the GOP a working-class party would be totally lost. A toxic GOP brand, combined with an establishment class that is totally uninterested in a national conservative agenda, would render the Republicans dead in the water.
All of this is, of course, highly unlikely. Trump certainly will not be removed, though he probably deserves to be. But I can very easily see the GOP utterly refusing to learn its lessons in the event they were lucky enough to get President Pence.