From the 'I' Word to the 'D' Word | Sojourners

From the 'I' Word to the 'D' Word

Special Counsel Robert Mueller makes a statement on his investigation into Russian interference in Washington, May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

The “I” word, which Donald Trump calls it, is, of course, “impeachment” — the constitutional process of charging and, then in the Senate, convicting, a president for abusing the public trust and committing wrongdoing. The Constitution says that a president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” That is what is politically required — as the specifics for impeachment are ultimately politically decided. The other key word here is “crimes,” and who has the authority to conclude that they have been done by a president.

The “D” word is “dictator,” which is the word that I believe must be brought into the political conversation. Historian Jon Meacham said it clearly this week:

We’re going to be dealing with this for a long time … We know that the presidency has not changed Donald Trump. But we don’t yet know as to what extent Donald Trump has changed the presidency. And will this kind of, really, totalitarian mindset infect the office going forward? Unclear ... Throughout our history, we’ve have had moments of chaos and then order ... There have been moments of crisis and restoration. That’s what we have to hope for and work for going forward — the latter.

It’s illustrated by what Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said recently of her experience on Trump’s inauguration stage: “I sat on that stage between Bernie and John McCain, and John McCain kept reciting to me names of dictators during that speech because he knew more than any of us what we were facing as a nation. He understood it. He knew because he knew this man more than any of us did.”

Robert Mueller also spoke this week about his Special Counsel report, shining a light on some of the details, as very few citizens, perhaps even few members of Congress, have read the 400-page report.

Who knows why Mueller waited this long to speak — and only after the president and his Attorney General Bill Barr altered public perception of the report — except that this man seems to move slowly, methodically, and not always clearly or courageously.

The only real clarity was at the beginning and the end of his short statement. He started by detailing how “Russian intelligence officers, who are part of the Russian military, launched a concerted attack on our political system” seeking to “interfere with our election and to damage a candidate.” He ended by saying, “I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.” What has the chief executive of the country and commander-in-chief done about that? Absolutely nothing.

Despite 140 contacts between Trump aides and the Russians, Mueller could not reach the legal bar of “conspiracy.” But on Trump’s possible obstruction of justice, Mueller offered one of the most convoluted public sentences we have ever heard:

And as set forth in the report, after that investigation, if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime. (emphasis added)

Why did he not make that determination? Because Mueller believed he was not allowed to do so, he said in his statement Wednesday. That is entirely contrary to what Barr has previously said about Mueller’s motivations and sense of directives.

Mueller said this week, “The introduction to the Volume II of our report explains that decision. It explains that under longstanding department policy, a president cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that, too, is prohibited. A special counsel’s office is part of the Department of Justice, and by regulation, it was bound by that department policy. Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.” So Mueller clearly didn’t think he could charge the sitting president with any crimes.

So instead, Mueller punted to the Congress — and here is how he put it: “... the opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing” (again, emphasis added). The “other” place such matters would need to be resolved, constitutionally, is the Congress — which brings up the “I” word, as the president calls it.

That part was not his job, Mueller said, and so he turned over the evidence of what he discovered to allow and enable another branch of government to act — or not. Just read my report, said Mueller, and you can see for yourself; I’m done. The scene has already been compared to an author appearing in front of an audience and saying, “Just read my book. No questions.”

But sorry, Bob, there are many questions. And we have just begun.

Already, nearly 1,000 Republican and Democratic prosecutors — from various levels of the federal system and from across the country — have written a letter in response to the Mueller report’s extensive evidence of what the president did to obstruct justice.

Here is the key passage:

Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.

The Mueller report describes several acts that satisfy all of the elements for an obstruction charge: conduct that obstructed or attempted to obstruct the truth-finding process, as to which the evidence of corrupt intent and connection to pending proceedings is overwhelming.

Then there is Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the only member of his party thus far to call for impeachment, who said this week:

Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented key aspects of Mueller’s report and decisions in the investigation, which has helped further the president’s false narrative about the investigation … Barr has so far successfully used his position to sell the president’s false narrative to the American people. This will continue if those who have read the report do not start pushing back on his misrepresentations and share the truth.

Amash summed it up:

“Here are my principal conclusions:
1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report.
2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.
3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances.
4. Few members of Congress have read the report.

While impeachment should be undertaken only in extraordinary circumstances, the risk we face in an environment of extreme partisanship is not that Congress will employ it as a remedy too often but rather that Congress will employ it so rarely that it cannot deter misconduct … Our system of checks and balances relies on each branch’s jealously guarding its powers and upholding its duties under our Constitution. When loyalty to a political party or to an individual trumps loyalty to the Constitution, the Rule of Law—the foundation of liberty—crumbles.

Chances for impeachment and conviction of Donald Trump are indeed low. Only one Republican congressman — and still a minority of Democrats — are open to beginning an impeachment process. The Republicans in the Senate (who would have to convict on impeachment) are solidly behind Trump, with their leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saying he won’t bring an impeachment to the floor and won’t even have any discussion about the Constitution. Instead, the Republicans are now supporting an investigation into the “treason” of government officials who decided to investigate the president in the first place.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is facing a profound political problem: More and more people are coming to believe this is a matter of principle and not politics — that if you won’t seek impeachment of a president like Donald Trump, when would you ever do it in fulfillment of your constitutional obligations in Congress?

Nearly everyone acknowledges that Senate Republicans, who control the majority, would remain loyal to Trump, acquit him of any wrongdoing, and keep him in office. Many believe that Trump would and could successfully use the impeachment attempt, naming it as a partisan charade, to boost support in ways that would help him win re-election. Most Americans rightfully still want to see political changes happen at the ballot box and not through impeachment hearings that are by their very nature “political.”

Therefore, for me, the impeachment question isn’t just principled or political. It should not be avoided for political advantage or undertaken because of abstract principles that most Americans don’t know or wouldn’t vote for. Rather, we must all discern the strategic moral importance to the ultimate question of how to best remove an American dictator from the presidency. Would a formal impeachment process really increase the public’s access and awareness to information and witnesses from the White House in a way that would help reveal the truth and cause more voters to reject Trump at the ballot box? What will happen if, instead, the would-be dictator continues to successfully stonewall any investigative requests — as tyrants always do— even in the context of a formal impeachment inquiry? What would we do, arrest him?

This is no longer a partisan issue, especially since the Republican Party has been taken over by a potential dictator. For the sake of the moral health and, literally, democratic survival of the country, our moment requires a moral and not just a political response to the deep dangers of Donald Trump. That must ultimately be done via the process most likely to succeed (i.e., the 2020 election), and we must be careful about a process destined to fail that could make it even harder to end the increasingly dangerous power of Trump at the ballot box.

And the faith community, which should never be politically partisan, must make moral decisions in elections and not succumb to Faustian political bargains. Donald Trump is, and always has been, a consummate liar, an amoral human being, a completely selfish man with no concern for any others, an ultimate wealth and power-seeking megalomaniac, and the kind of leader who always has and will always want to be a tyrant and dictator. Removing him from power is, therefore, a task central to the soul of the nation — and to the integrity of faith.

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