MSNBC just announced that Nancy Pelosi has “zeroed in” on a focused impeachment strategy “that will center on a simple ‘abuse of power’ narrative involving the president’s actions regarding Ukraine.” Apparently there remain some wise House Democratic leaders reluctant to narrow the impeachment. But Pelosi claims impeachment “must be targeted and easy to communicate in order to build public support.” Neal Katyal, former Acting Solicitor General and frequent MSNBC commentator, agrees, stating that such an approach: “keeps the story focused there [Ukraine], and not on distracting sideshows.”
A focused impeachment that builds public support is surely a good thing; I’ve been arguing this for the past six months.
But it seems extremely foolish to believe that focus can only be achieved through a narrowing of vision, and it seems worse than foolish to believe that Trump’s other abuses of power — general obstruction of justice, manifest violations of the Emoluments Clause, and especially everything connected with the Mueller Report — constitute “distracting sideshows.” For they all represent serious assaults on the Constitution, they are linked by Trump’s general hostility to the rule of law, and they deserve to be cited in charges against this awful man. Can you imagine a scenario where it was decided to charge a serial killer with only one grisly murder because it was the most easily convictable? That would be a miscarriage of justice. It would also place an exceptional burden on the prosecution of that one crime. Even if some charges are easier to prove than others, all serious crimes ought to be charged.
Of course, impeachment is a political process and not a criminal trial. But this makes the point even more strongly. Pelosi may imagine that a simple impeachment could lead to Trump’s conviction by the Republican-dominated Senate. This seems delusional to me. But even if it is true, and even if the Ukraine scandal is the abuse that is most likely to produce a conviction, this is no reason to avoid forcing Republicans to deal with, and take responsibility for, all of Trump’s crimes against the republic. Once we acknowledge that a Senate conviction is virtually impossible, it becomes even clearer that the real audience of this impeachment is the American public. There is no reason why the House Democratic prosecutors cannot treat Ukraine as the most glaring of a serious of real abuses, and link them all together in a convincing narrative about Trump’s hostility to the Constitution.
Furthermore, from a political perspective it is especially foolish to simply drop the other charges, and especially those linked to the Mueller investigation and report. There are two reasons why.
The first is quite simply because the Mueller report contains damning evidence of both “collusion” and “obstruction.” Virtually all serious commentators have always known this. The Democrats did not handle the Mueller report effectively. They waited too long to deal with the report, they allowed Mueller himself to fail miserably in public testimony, and as a result they allowed Trump and Barr to completely control the narrative about Mueller by lying to the American public. It is not a “sideshow” that they succeeded in playing the Democrats and the media and in lying to the American people. It is an outrage. And it would be equally outrageous to allow such damning evidence of Trump’s serious political and probably criminal abuses to simply fade into oblivion.
But the second reason is more important: because while the Democrats might wish to ignore “Mueller” in the interests of “focus,” Trump and his handlers have never agreed to ignore “Mueller.” They have embraced the Mueller Report — as a sign of an evil conspiracy against Trump and thus against American Greatness — and have continued to use it as a rhetorical weapon in Trump’s broader neo-fascist rhetoric about how his critics are “enemies of the people.”
On May 24, I published a piece entitled “Is Impeachment Really Optional? Sometimes a strong offense is the only defense.” The “defense” in question related to the Constitution in general, but also very explicitly to the fact that Trump had recently declared that Attorney General William Barr was opening an investigation into the Mueller probe itself, elevating his rhetorical attack on the rule of law, and also threatening possible criminal investigation of Justice Department officials doing their jobs. Trump, in other words, was going on the offensive. As I noted:
This is more than frightening and dangerous in itself. For it is part of a very predictable offensive by Trump against any effort to hold him accountable for his malfeasance in office. And this is why it is foolish for Democrats any longer to “debate” the “question” of whether “normal investigations” are superior to impeachment, and whether impeachment would allow Trump to gin up his base. For Trump is not waiting around for Democrats to decide how to act. He is upping the ante. And every day that he persists in this is one day further into the past that the Mueller Report recedes, and one day more in which he and Barr can further frame everything as a nefarious plot to defame and undermine him, thus undermining “the will of the people” itself.
Everything that has happened since has confirmed this judgment. Indeed, the Ukraine scandal is not separate from the Mueller investigation. It is the direct result of Trump’s effort to undermine that investigation, to smear its participants, and to counter its truthful narrative with a fake narrative, based on absurd conspiracy theories, about how it was the Democrats who really colluded with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs to oppose Trump. The current scandal regarding Ukraine centers entirely on the efforts of Trump, Giuliani, Barr, and the rest, to pressure the Ukrainian government to cooperate with Barr’s efforts to investigate everything surrounding the Mueller investigation, and to link it to Democratic corruption. Dirt on Joe Biden and his son was surely part of Trump’s interest this past summer. But his real corrupt intent is broader and deeper — the desire to link Biden and Clinton and Obama himself with “Crowd Strike” and with a nefarious plot to frustrate “the will of the people” by opposing the election of Il Duce.
And right now, while Pelosi — who takes much too seriously the news reports of her own strategic brilliance — seeks to narrow the impeachment, Trump and his cronies are doing everything in their power to expand the scope of the political contest. And so Axios reports that “Investigation into Trump-Russia probe continues to grow,” NBC reports that “AG Barr expands mysterious review into origin of Russia investigation,” and Peter Stone, in the New York Review of Books, writes about “William Barr, Trump’s New Roy Cohn,” observing that he:
“has been assiduous in pursuing Trump’s interests by ‘investigating the investigators.’ Barr has apparently devoted more and more time in recent months to foreign trips related to that purpose, which partly duplicates another, narrower inquiry by the DOJ’s own inspector general. Last month, Barr and Durham took their second trip to Italy, where they met with intelligence officials and sought help in examining contentious claims of improper methods and sources used by the FBI, theories that have been embraced by Trump allies.“
Trump and his administration are engaged in a relentless assault on constitutional democracy that commenced on January 21, 2017, and will end only when this presidency ends. It is a mistake for Democrats to narrow the focus of impeachment on either legalistic or public relations grounds. Political justice requires that Trump be publicly exposed and charged with his crimes high and low, and that he and his supporters be forced to confront the charges in full public view. And savvy political judgment requires that Democrats not rhetorically disarm as precisely the moment when Trump intends to escalate the conflict. It is virtually certain that Trump and Barr will continue to investigate the Mueller investigation and to spread conspiracy theories, and that any impeachment charges, however judiciously framed, will result in a barrage of Trump accusations against his critics. The best way to completely delegitimize these accusations is to meet them head on, by linking Trump’s Ukraine scandal with the broader history of collusion and election law violation and obstruction of justice documented in the Mueller report. This is the best way to pursue a legitimate impeachment, and to defeat Trumpism at the ballot box in November 2020.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington