Impeachment Is Just Another Word for Getting Even. Thanks, GOP.
Accountability is on life support and even Jack Smith may not save it.
THE PARALLEL STRUGGLES of Special Counsel Jack Smith to hold Donald Trump accountable and House Republicans to find a reason to impeach Joe Biden are depressing and clarifying.
Our politics has reached the point where if you try to penalize bad or even criminal behavior, you’re inviting a tit-for-tat cycle of petty partisanship at best, and violent retribution at worst. The first renders discipline meaningless, and the second is terrifying.
On the surface, it may seem like fact-based, bipartisan accountability has made a comeback. The Republican-run House last week expelled Republican Rep. George Santos, criminally indicted on twenty-three counts and documented in a House ethics report as a fabulist and fraudmeister of the first order.1 And more than half of Senate Democrats called for the resignation of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) after his second indictment.
But House Republicans have also advanced nakedly partisan initiatives and investigations. They remain weirdly fixated on Hunter Biden, who (unlike some presidential offspring) has never worked in his dad’s White House, and hellbent on impeaching his dad for . . . whatever.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has twice introduced articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, charging that his handling of the U.S.-Mexican border amounts to “high crimes and misdemeanors.” House Republicans censured Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff in June, claiming that in his leading roles in the two Trump impeachments, he had threatened national security and brought dishonor to the House. (No, it was not Backwards Day.)
And because nothing is ever really over, Ukraine last month accused three officials of treason for working with Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani to further Russia’s agenda of 2020 election interference against Biden. Parts of the new GOP impeachment drive against Biden, CNN noted, “can be traced back to the smears” and disinformation about the Biden family promoted by the three men back then.
No facts? No problem. House Republicans plan to launch an official Biden impeachment inquiry this week—if they can wrangle enough votes from their minuscule, divided majority. Greene predicted two months before the 2022 midterms that there would be “a lot of investigations” if the GOP won the House. It’s the Democrats’ fault, she told author Robert Draper, because they started it with their “witch hunts” against Trump. She introduced an impeachment resolution against Biden the day after he took office.
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The farcical Biden proceedings, built on a foundation of debunked conspiracy theories and loan repayments from relatives when he was a private citizen, turn the constitutional equivalent of a political death penalty into a tool of political retribution. Yet as the corrupt and vengeful Trump has shown, when the wrongdoing is massive and indisputable, lawmakers and courts shrink from taking it on.
Teflon Trump is untouchable in his own eyes
THE QUADRUPLY INDICTED, twice-impeached and twice-acquitted 45th president of the United States is trying to delay four criminal trials until after the 2024 election, which he plans to win in order to stay out of jail and ultimately kill or bury those indictments. He lives to fight another day because, in a disaster for America, he beat the system while he was president. Let’s look at the record.
Trump’s first impeachment was over his self-described “perfect” July 2019 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump regurgitated conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the 2016 election, trashed special counsel Robert Mueller, and tried to extort dirt on Biden (“I would like you to do us a favor, though”) in exchange for releasing congressionally approved military aid to help Ukraine fend off Russian incursions.
A day after the House voted to impeach Trump, the General Accounting Office determined that withholding the aid was illegal. But except for Utah’s Mitt Romney, Senate Republicans did not help Democrats convict Trump, oust him and bar him from future office. Trump was acquitted. Vladimir Putin escalated last year from regional provocations to all-out war to reclaim Ukraine for Mother Russia. And Zelensky was in Washington this week imploring resistant congressional Republicans to approve more aid.
The second impeachment was over Trump’s central role in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, including the deadly January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection, an unprecedented abuse of power. But again Trump escaped conviction in the Senate, and the GOP declined to consider a freestanding bill to ban him from future office. This was not because Republicans approved of his election denialism and the attack he encouraged, which had endangered their lives as they tried to finalize Biden’s 2020 win. As Romney told his biographer, McKay Coppins, some considered voting to impeach or convict, but decided the safety of their families was paramount.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted to acquit, angrily warned Trump on the Senate floor that the courts would deliver justice. That may prove true. But it has yet to happen in the four pending criminal cases against him, and Trump—who declared himself a 2024 presidential candidate the week after the 2022 elections—is doing his utmost to make sure it never happens.
Most absurdly, he is arguing he has immunity from prosecution because all those attempts to overturn the 2020 election—the fake elector scheme, the lies about widespread fraud, the Big Lie that he was the rightful winner, the objections to certified state vote counts, the violent Capitol riot, the bullying of Vice President Mike Pence—were part of his job as president. Smith has bypassed an appeals court and gone straight to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to rule quickly and keep the March 4 trial date on track.
The question before them is whether Trump, having been president for four years, is permanently protected from prosecution on criminal charges for conduct during those four years. Since Justice Department “guidance” against indicting sitting presidents likely saved Trump from criminal charges when he was in office, the larger question is whether the U.S. presidency should be a get-away-with-anything-forever interlude for those with criminal inclinations.
There is a constitutional amendment that appears written for just this moment. No person who swore an oath to defend the Constitution can hold office if they “have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof,” the Fourteenth Amendment says. Yet state courts are declining to keep Trump off their 2024 ballots, even in Colorado, where Trump’s actions were specifically deemed insurrectionary.
That could change, but the great irony is that so far, the enormity of the January 6th riot and the wariness of the courts have protected Trump. Now the argument is over whether the Fourteenth Amendment applies to presidents and to Trump’s actions. David Frum says no and warns that if “excluders” win their case, the amendment “would become a dangerously convenient tool of partisan politics.”
Just like impeachment.
Are Republicans measurably worse than Democrats?
AS HOUSE REPUBLICANS LURCH FORWARD with the Joe Biden impeachment and the lurid Hunter Biden soap opera, with no evidence to pursue the first and a disproportionate preoccupation with the second, I often ask myself: Am I being fair? If Democrats held majorities, would they go after their perceived enemies? Would they spend their days wreaking vengeance and piling up campaign ammunition?
Here’s what I see: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waited months, even years (if you count Trump sharing highly classified intelligence with Russians in the Oval Office less than four months after he took the oath) to open an impeachment proceeding, until the Trump-Zelensky phone call transcript forced her hand. She didn’t hesitate to start a second proceeding after January 6th.
House Democrats did do some investigating of Trump family finances in 2021–22, when they held the majority, as did the outside group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The focus has been, rightly, on White House aides Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner: her fast-tracked trademarks from China, his $2 billion from the Saudis just after leaving the White House, the $172 million to $640 million they collected during their administration service, including at the Trump Hotel down the block.
Democrats don’t control the House anymore, but they do run the Senate. So why aren’t Senate Democrats investigating? The New Republic this month suggests they may be waiting until later in the 2024 campaign, when it might be more effective, but now are content to watch Republicans flounder in pursuit of an impeachment about nothing.
Maybe, sure, but I’d also ask: When would Senate Democrats find the time? They are serious about governing and finding likeminded Republican partners whenever possible. They’ve been making bipartisan deals on gun safety, infrastructure, economic competitiveness, spending, post office reforms, and women’s safety; confirming Biden judicial nominees; passing climate and health cost initiatives; getting schooled on artificial intelligence; managing two explosive proxy wars; and fighting Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade of over 400 military promotions.
As for Republicans, the potential for revenge and retaliation for crossing Trump, directly or indirectly, has never been higher. The three-week speaker’s race in September unleashed death threats and other mayhem on people who did not support Rep. Jim Jordan, and even on their spouses. Before that, there were the gallows at the Capitol on January 6th, the threats that day to hurt or kill Pence and Pelosi, and last year’s near-fatal beating of Pelosi’s husband, Paul, by an anti-Pelosi intruder with a hammer.
Romney, who is not running for re-election next year, told Coppins that he’s spending $5,000 a day on security for his family after voting to convict Trump in both impeachment trials. He’s far from alone amid escalating threats against public officials. But unlike most of them, Romney happens to have that kind of money.
Through it all, there’s Trump, who is now vowing that if elected he will weaponize government against “every Marxist prosecutor in America” and “radical left thugs who live like vermin” in America. He also wants to prosecute the media. “I am your warrior, I am your justice,” he said in March at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
For what? For being born into a wealthy democracy with solid founding principles and, one hopes, even as they are put to the test, durable values and aspirations? It’s no wonder lawmakers are departing Congress at a record pace.
Only the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court can determine if the job description of “president” includes trying to overturn an election and inciting a riot that was linked to at least seven deaths and has left many more—both the attacked and the attackers—with wrecked lives and careers. Only they can make that determination in time to head off another Trump nomination and possible return to the White House, or guarantee that the first happens and the second very well could.