If the Trump White House’s “transcript” of the president’s now-infamous July 25th phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was the sight of the north Atlantic ice peak sitting above the water, the intelligence-community whistleblower complaint released on Thursday morning was the giant iceberg lying in wait to puncture the hull of Donald Trump’s Titanic. Aye, the boat will sink. Give it time.
They got him. The allegations made by the whistleblower would have been enough to end 44 presidencies before this, yesterday. The layers of criminality and treachery that have already spelled out are astounding, and we have barely seen how deep the rabbit hole goes. The White House has already admitted what the whistleblower alleges about covering up Trump’s abuse of power in that phone call by filing it in a separate classified system. The complaint also implicates Attorney General William Barr, who refuses to recuse himself from the matter. All of this so that Trump can can commit voter suppression from the Oval Office, attempting to strip away the will of American voters before they’ve even had a chance to voice it a single 2020 primary.
Why do I call it “voter suppression” rather than merely “election meddling” or “interference”? Because as he is wont to do, Trump did precisely what he accuses the Democrats of doing. By soliciting illegal assistance before his 2016 contest with Hillary Clinton and again before his upcoming battle for a second term, Trump purposely took an election partly out of the hands of voters and put it in the hands of foreign nations. The effect, intentional or not, is silencing American voices in their own democracy.
For years now, we have listened to Republicans frame the pursuit of Trump’s impeachment as subverting the will of the American voter. Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, must have had the taste of the president’s shoe polish fresh on his tongue during his opening statement Thursday as he claimed that, “in the Democrats’ mania to overturn the 2016 elections, everything they touch gets hopelessly politicized.” The framing is all wrong, however, and impeachment is not merely an investigatory process by which Democrats need to deliberately build their case against Trump. They need to use this to help Americans understand who is truly stealing the vote, and who is truly working against American values.
Democrats, by prosecuting this particular case against him via impeachment, have the opportunity now to make the argument that Trump is not merely guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. He is dangerous to leave in the office of the presidency because of his nearly paranormally adept nature for finding what I have called the holes in the American boat: the weaknesses in the American project that Eurocentrism, bureaucratic stagnation, intellectual laziness, and the false comfort of American exceptionalism have allowed to fester since the drafting of the Constitution. Trump’s presidency has exposed just about all of them, and widened the apertures. Impeachment is about the best opportunity any of us will have, certainly better than an election cycle, to fully assess the damage that he has done and to plan for its repair.
In short, just because Trump is sinking does not mean that we must as well.
Trump likely isn’t going to be removed from office via this process, as we know. But the argument for making it their primary focus, along with other basic government functions, is the GOP’s own publicly declared GOP recalcitrance. The ultimate judge and jury for this impeachment will be the American electorate. If he is removed from office, it will be by them, not by Congress. Pelosi will get her wish, ultimately.
So, in order to rebuild trust in the very system that Trump is attempting to undermine, they have to name the problem directly. Democrats cannot cloak it in softer rhetoric. They must help voters understand that Trump was not merely trying to cheat, but trying to cheat them.
Whomever replaces Trump, should a normal election even occur at this point, will need to have that information, after all. Even for those of us who maintain a healthy skepticism about this U.S. of A given its flaws, it is astonishing to see the speed with which Trump and his minions have worked to undermine the very nature of what America is. Yes, this has always been a fundamentally racist country, to its very marrow. Since the inception of chattel slavery 400 years ago, well before the 1776 inception we all celebrate every July, it has operated systematically to further white supremacy. However, there remains an American project that lays the groundwork for an egalitarian nation that, were it ever realized, would make this truly the America we have been mythologizing all along. “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” Those were some of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last words, spoken in his speech the day before his murder. To the very end, he believed in an America that could be one day realized.
That value is what this impeachment must be about, at its core. Impeachment, inherently, is about deletion. It is about loss, no matter how welcome or necessary. This is a solemn moment, not one for juvenile celebration of Republicans’ predicament nor a time for histrionic alarmism about how they may end up benefiting in the end.
Public opinion is already spiking heavily in Democrats’ favor, for impeachment. But they must proceed slowly, deliberately, and publicly. It must be a broad inquiry, encompassing not merely the Ukraine offense but his human rights violations against migrants, presidential profiteering, obstruction of justice, and other various crimes. They have to clean it all up, because if they don’t, the next charlatan will presume that she has carte blanche.
Democrats cannot hope to have impeachment merely succeed as a political enterprise. It must, for all of our sakes, fulfill a grander purpose. No, it can’t just keep him occupied enough to prevent him from doing further damage, though, as Paul Krugman argues, that may be a fortunate consequence. Democrats have a chance to use the most powerful investigatory process the Constitution affords Congress to both administer consequences to a president who deserves them and to find ways to make the country stronger for the future, long-term. They should seize it with both hands.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her caucus have spent much of their time during this presidency, to their credit, proposing and passing ceremonial bills like H.R. 1 — legislation that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would block or Trump would ignore, but bills that signify where the party stands in advance of a presidential election that very well may determine the fate of this nation and this planet. If the Senate turns away impeachment, what will be different? Why should Democrats be discouraged from sending it to them, if they treat it like any of the symbolic pieces of legislation that they have used to communicate their values to American voters?
That is why Pelosi should treat this like her most important piece of legislation yet. But the politics are secondary. Nothing else will get done while this is happening, so Democrats shouldn’t even try. Republican support of Trump will not falter, as Adam Serwer explains, the very anti-democratic ideas that pushed Trump towards his criminality are the very ones that his party has been using to undermine our democracy long before he came along. So Democrats, the party that most needs the government to look like it works, should make it work for the American voter by ensuring that their voices are heard and calling out Trump’s suppression for what it is. Impeachment is their only job now, and that is just fine. Given the immense gravity of their task, it will require every bit of their attention.