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For impeachment, quick and narrow is the way to go

As the impeachment proceedings against President Trump enter a new phase, lawmakers face three critical questions. None have easy answers, but they are, in increasing order of difficulty: Should the articles of impeachment be narrow or broad, focusing on conduct related to Ukraine or sweeping in other presidential abuses? Should action wait until Congress can secure testimony from critical witnesses? And, the hardest question of all: As appalling as the president’s conduct was, would it be better to allow voters to determine his fate, given that the election is less than a year away?

My conclusions are that narrow is better than broad, sooner is better than later and, as much as it should give all of us pause, conviction and removal are warranted.

Narrow is better because the president’s bad conduct with respect to Ukraine was significantly worse than his bad conduct elsewhere, including his demonstrated efforts to obstruct justice in the special counsel’s probe into Russian meddling.

As a sitting president, Trump solicited a foreign leader — not just in one “perfect” phone call but repeatedly over time — to take steps to hurt one of his main opponents in the upcoming election. To this self-interested end, Trump dangled the perquisites of his office (a presidential meeting) and held up congressionally appropriated funds. Both aspects of this behavior are far worthier of impeachment than Trump’s previous conduct.

If launching impeachment proceedings was not wise or warranted in the wake of the Mueller report, including that in the forthcoming articles feels like unnecessary and unwise piling on. That does not mean lawmakers should be blind to the history of Trump’s conduct and the ways in which his behavior with respect to Ukraine was of a piece with other efforts to obtain or welcome election meddling by foreign powers. Just as courts take judicial notice, lawmakers can take congressional notice that this was not an isolated incident on Trump’s part — without charging the previous behavior as a separate basis for impeachment.

Sooner is better than later, even though that means lawmakers and the public will be deprived of important, potentially revelatory, testimony that Democrats might be able to compel through court proceedings. The reason is that, even assuming such litigation would succeed, going to court to compel testimony from such recalcitrant witnesses as former national security adviser John Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and then determining the permissible scope of that testimony, would likely take months. That would push the resolution of the impeachment proceedings further — and unhealthily — into the election season.

And to what end? The evidence against Trump is already ample to conclude that he committed impeachable offenses. To argue, as Republicans have, that direct evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing in lacking is both incorrect and the height of constitutional chutzpah. The fault for the lacking evidence lies in the president’s own noncompliance with congressional oversight, contemptuous conduct that forms a separate basis for impeachment. Yes, more evidence would be better, but, sadly, in the current environment, that would not be likely to change many minds, or to transform impeachment into a bipartisan enterprise.

One digression on that question of partisanship: Republicans have correctly noted that Democrats, during the Clinton impeachment and more recently with Trump, have said impeachment should have bipartisan support. That is true, but it raises the question of how to think about impeachment in an era of unrelenting partisanship. That no Republican lawmakers appear ready to back impeachment says more about their willingness to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities than it does about whether impeachment is warranted. It is.

Which leads to the fundamental issue of whether, assuming the House approves articles of impeachment, the Senate should vote to remove him office. That is highly unlikely as a practical matter, given the requirement of a two-thirds vote to convict, but it is important to take seriously nonetheless because it represents such a grave step. Does it matter when in a president’s term the impeachment proceedings arise? Does it matter that the president’s impeachable conduct involves an attempt to influence the very election that is looming?

I think the answer is yes to both.

The closeness of an election matters — hence the earlier discussion about the wisdom of acting sooner rather than later. But the framers did not write in an impeachment remedy that would apply only in a president’s second term, or only in the first half of his time in office. They created a safety valve to protect the republic from dangerously abusive conduct by a chief executive.

This is why the nature of Trump’s impeachable conduct matters. He has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to misuse his public office not only for private gain, but to his private political ends. He did so as a candidate, and, even more egregiously, in office. He is heedless of guardrails; indeed, he has increasingly dismissed those around him who would constrain his reckless behavior. The framers wisely provided a break-in-case-of emergency solution.




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