There was always going to be a last straw, a single event that would launch impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. On Tuesday, the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, declared that Trump had finally gone too far, by “asking the President of Ukraine to take actions that would benefit him politically.” As a result, she was officially announcing the transition from investigation to an impeachment inquiry. “The President must be held accountable,” she said. “No one is above the law.”
The Rubicon that Pelosi crossed is more rhetorical than procedural. As my colleague John Cassidy has pointed out, the six congressional committees that have been investigating Trump in a de-facto impeachment inquiry will continue their work, incorporating the newly urgent investigation of Trump’s July phone call with the Ukrainian President, Vlodymyr Zelensky, and the whistle-blower report that apparently, at least in part, stemmed from it. But what makes this event different from all the other malfeasances of the Trump Presidency? Trump has been credibly accused of breaking the law many times—nearly two hundred pages of the Mueller report document the President’s attempts to obstruct justice. Now he appears, judging from a newly released summary of the call, to have pressured a foreign leader to dig for dirt on a potential electoral opponent, tied the release of congressionally approved military aid, explicitly or implicitly, to this request, and stopped the acting director of National Intelligence from releasing the resulting whistle-blower report to Congress. Why are these alleged crimes the ones that, in the estimation of Pelosi and her colleagues on the Democratic caucus, warrant impeachment proceedings?
This is less a legal question than a political one. Hours before Pelosi’s announcement, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp argued that the Ukraine revelation changed the mathematics of impeachment because it concerned an “ongoing attempt to hijack American foreign policy in service of the president’s reelection.” Impeachment stemming from the Mueller report would constitute punishment for past misdeeds, while impeachment stemming from the whistle-blower report would serve to prevent further harm. This, Beauchamp argues, would make it harder for Republicans to dismiss the inquiry.
The inquiry gains additional urgency because it concerns the 2020 Presidential election. For the first two and a half years of the Trump Presidency, congressional Democrats and much of the legacy media have concentrated on investigating and relitigating the 2016 election, sometimes at the expense of paying attention to the events of the Presidency itself. Now the focus is shifting to 2020, with Ukraine upstaging Russia and the entire story already upstaging current events (such as, for just one example, Trump’s isolationist, anti-immigrant speech at the United Nations on Tuesday). An election gave us Trump, and, impeachment proceedings notwithstanding, an election has the potential to rid us of him. For the past two and a half years, Trump has aspired to autocracy—attacking institutions, undermining and subverting the separation of powers—but, as long as his Presidency can be ended by an election, he has not consolidated autocratic power.
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And yet we habitually overstate the importance of elections. We have a way of talking about elections as though they were synonymous with democracy. They are not: they are merely a very imperfect way of creating the possibility of democracy, which is the government of the governed. Ideally, democracy is what would happen between elections. Trump’s attacks on democracy include his war with the media, his redefinition of American identity in white-male supremacist terms, his isolationism, his use of the Presidency for personal profit, his campaign of packing the federal courts, his verbal attacks on judges, and his treatment of the judiciary as a nuisance on the way to getting things done—a view that he applies to the separation of powers in general. These are just some of his high crimes.
Trump should be impeached. The event that finally got Pelosi to say so is, in fact, a straw: an incident that resembles a succession of other incidents in which Trump has used his office for personal gain and sabotaged the system of checks and balances. His attempt to use two hundred and fifty million dollars of congressionally approved military aid for his own benefit falls in the same category as his and his children’s foreign business deals, brokered on the back of American diplomacy; his use of the Presidency to attract lobbyists, dignitaries, and perhaps entire summits as paying guests to his properties; and his use of taxpayer funds for incessant leisure travel. Trump’s attempt to quash the whistle-blower’s report is similar to his attempt to pressure the F.B.I. director James Comey to stop the investigation of the national-security adviser Michael Flynn, or his attempt to get the White House counsel Don McGahn to lie to the public. This time, Trump succeeded, at least for a while, surely in part because Joseph Maguire is the third person in the course of his Presidency to hold the National Intelligence job, and because, like an ever-growing number of Administration officials, Maguire has the word “acting” in front of his job title. As the impeachment inquiry moves forward, it would behoove congressional Democrats, and all of us, to focus less on Ukraine and the eternal spectre of election contamination by a foreign power and more on Trump’s pattern of abuse of executive power and the destruction it has wrought on American government. This is what will require repair in the time after Trump.