Let me begin with a flat statement: impeachment--in its literal sense--is going ahead. Impeachment refers to a kind of indictment brought in our system by the House of Representatives, and it does not in itself remove the President or other impeached officials. Conviction or acquittal is the prerogative of the Senate, which must remove the impeached official by a 2/3 vote. That the Senate failed to do in the cases of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. The House was ready to impeach and the Senate was ready to convict Richard Nixon, but he resigned before they could do so.
Trump has now been caught red-handed in a serious offense, and the momentum within the Democratic House caucus, which had already been building, has really taken off now. I shared Nancy Pelosi's skepticism about the wisdom of the step and I am not convinced even now that it will turn out well--but it looks like it is going to happen and I am not going to make the mistake, so common in this day and age, of assuming that what I want must always happen sooner or later. In any case I am not really against impeachment now--just concerned about where it will lead.
As usual, the media have frequently been misstating a lot of the facts and issues in the case. The whistle blower complaint and the transcript that has been released make it clear to me that Trump has committed a very impeachable offense. I'm not referring to a quid pro quo exactly, or to a possible violation of campaign laws (which depends on a very broad interpretation of those laws, just as it does in the Stormy Daniels case.) Trump was attempting to create an active conspiracy between a foreign government, his personal attorney, and the Attorney General and the Justice Department, designed to develop incriminating information against the leading presidential candidate of the other party. That subverts our political process and, more importantly in my view, the functioning of the criminal justice system. The President sees the government--or those parts of it about which he cares--as his personal staff, there to further his interests. Even Jeff Sessions, who I thought was about as conservative a Republican as one could find, was not willing to play his assigned role. Neither was White House Counsel Don McGann. William Barr, however, is fully on board (and may deserve to be impeached himself as well, depending on how much active collaboration he has done with Giuliani on this and other matters.)
For at least the second time, the President is treating a foreign government as an ally in a struggle with a domestic political opponent. Despite the strict legal conclusions of the Mueller report, we know that the Russian government provided extensive help to the Trump campaign in 2016 by hacking and releasing DNC emails and mounting campaigns on social media. Trump publicly asked them for more assistance in the midst of the campaign, and at least one associate of his campaign, Roger Stone, seems to have been in touch with Wikileaks regarding the publication of the emails. Yesterday we learned that Trump told two Russian diplomats in the spring of 2017 that he didn't object to what their government had done during our election. Since foreign assistance had got him into the White House, he seems to feel, there is no reason why it should not keep him there.
Whether or not any of this involves indictable crimes that would result in a conviction in court, these steps in my view fall very much within the category of offenses with which the Founders expected impeachment to deal. "Mr. MADISON," the record of the debates of the Constitutional convention reads, "thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community agst. [sic] the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate." Trump has demonstrated all three, repeatedly, and this case is a spectacular one.
Other very recent revelations confirm his incapacity and perfidy. Rather than directing the operations of the federal government, he is carrying on much of his presidency in secret. Responsible authorities, we now find, cannot see what he has said to the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia in phone conversations--they too are kept in a special, almost private server. Yesterday the New York Times reported that Trump discussed trading gun legislation for support over impeachment with the NRA. Our President is a diplomatic incompetent who cannot distinguish the national interest from his own. For that he deserves to be removed.
But will he be?
I have written many times that the election of Donald Trump, an obvious huckster who has had to declare bankruptcy more than once, who has lied about many things for the whole of his career, and who made the fantastic claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, showed that our political system had collapsed. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party could produce a candidate who could beat him. A large segment of the population--a segment not limited to Trump voters--had lost all confidence in our political class. During the last three years the collapse has gotten worse on the Republican side at least, as the Republican Party has shamelessly lined up behind Trump, fearing the power of his alliance with Fox News, and welcoming many of his policy initiatives. Meanwhile, the Democratic news media has indeed waged a continuous partisan campaign focused upon him, rather than telling us more about what is actually happening in the US. The impeachment story will now take over the news for as long as it goes on, just as the Russian story did. A long partisan controversy over impeachment, I fear, will not improve the nation's opinion of its political leadership, especially if his acquittal by the Senate remains a foregone conclusion.
That is not all. To be offended by the subversion of our constitutional order, the public needs to understand and revere it. It no longer does. The Constitution--or at least, the 20th century interpretation of it--has been under attack for decades by the Right, who want to cripple the federal power to regulate the economy (something which, by the way, was well established at the time the Constitution was adopted.) Increasingly university students learn nothing about the Constitution except that it did not specifically enshrine equal rights for female and black inhabitants of the country. The reverence for the Constitution that Lincoln used to fight and win the civil war, that civil rights leaders exploited in the middle of the twentieth century, and that Sam Ervin and others used to bring down Nixon, is almost absent from our public discussions today. It will not bring the necessary Senate Republicans over to the side of conviction.
On the other hand, the whistle controversy has set off a cascade of revelations, and sources claim that a good many Congressional Republicans are disturbed. Perhaps more of them will persuade many of them that Trump has to go; perhaps, as has already happened with the NRA, a desperate Trump will turn out to be his own worst enemy. In that case, yes, it is possible that Mike Pence will become President. The Democratic nominee will then have to wage a campaign against Trumpism without Trump. We have no idea how that will go--although Pence has never looked like an impressive national figure to me.
In the worst case, Trump will be acquitted (or conceivably not impeached at all), the Democratic nomination struggle will be divisive, and he will win a second term. A voters' convincing rejection of him after an acquittal would for me be the best scenario of all, since it would reaffirm popular sovereignty and a necessary minimum of popular wisdom. That would however be only the beginning of a long process of trying to restore effective democracy. It would merely confirm, thankfully, that we had hit bottom at last.