Hear That? It’s New Impeachment Talk

Last week's bombshell news about former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s guilty plea shouldn’t have surprised too many people. Flynn has always been the key figure (now star witness) in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He was on board early with the Trump campaign and was a public confidant of the president until he was fired just three weeks into the new administration. Flynn was also publicly sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it quickly emerged that there was plenty of evidence Flynn would turn out to be the Oliver North of this scandal: the tall, quiet man at the center who knows everything.

The freshened taint of scandal makes it tempting to wonder whether President Trump will keep the presidency. I’ve been hesitant to really chomp at the impeachment bit if only because I realized early on that Congress would do nothing until 1) Republicans got their big tax cut for the wealthy, which now looks like it’s finally going to get done, 2) criminal charges were filed against the sitting president, 3) Democrats retake Congress in the 2018 midterms, or 4) all of the above, plus pigs with wings.

But Flynn’s single guilty plea in exchange for cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller is encouraging impeachment talk again, with U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat, planning to force a vote in the House of Representatives next week. Flynn, according to many news reports, is expected to testify that Trump’s transition team and possibly Trump himself directed his contacts with the Russians.

Now we know why Trump was so keen that former FBI director James Comey and congressional Republicans should give Flynn a pass. Comey has testified that Trump said he hoped Comey would consider “letting Flynn go.”

So is this the start of serious impeachment movement?

Not so fast. Putting aside the record Trump has for continually lowering the bar on what’s deemed acceptable behavior for the most politically powerful man in the world (he may well be able to shoot that figurative person on Fifth Avenue and still skate by), whether the Republican-controlled Congress will still do its job and remove him is an open question.

First, they haven’t gotten that tax cut for the rich yet. And there are still questions about its survivability now that everyone knows the Senate’s version of the bill would add $1 trillion to the national debt, lead to 13 million people losing their health insurance, give Trump and his family a multimillion-dollar windfall, and constitute what may be the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy in the nation’s history. But as they like to say in the tech industry, those aren’t bugs, those are features, and the signs favor something getting passed soon.

Then there’s the very nature of impeachment that makes it unlikely right now. On the three occasions when it’s been brought to bear in the past—against Presidents Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon (who only avoided it by resigning)—the opposition party had control of Congress. The Democrats don’t. Yet.

And the “high crimes and misdemeanors” language of the impeachment clause in the constitution (Article II, Section 4) is always tricky to define. In fact, while impeachment is necessarily a political process, it’s one that gets the lawyers involved on a micro level, so there are even congressional Democrats who are reluctant to go down that road. (Vox ran a very good discussion of this point concluding that impeachment has become one of those things that is “just not done anymore,” even when the case for doing so has never been clearer.)

There is also the intangible, the World According to Trump. The president and his supporters have manufactured a hermetic seal around their alternate reality and are unwilling to believe anything that isn’t on Fox News or Breitbart. In this worldview: There are some fine people among the Nazis who killed a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August; the real Russian scandal involves Hillary Clinton in some manner; and all the other news media are conspiring to bring down Trump because they’re controlled by Barack Obama or George Soros. Maybe ISIS, too. (As I write this, the Fox News website is trying out various angles to spin the news it can’t ignore. One headline: “Mainstream media hoping Trump collusion narrative is true?” Another: “Secret emails detail FBI’s hunt for leaker after infamous Lynch-Clinton meeting.”) No matter what happens, the “alternative facts” universe will coalesce around some explanation for why Trump is innocent and persecuted. They’re rallying behind an accused pedophile running for Senate, after all.

And while it’s tempting to think that the end of Trump’s maladministration is nearer than it was before Flynn’s guilty plea, we should consider what could happen. Vice President Mike Pence is next in line, and if he’s also implicated, then it’s House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose economic strategy involves gutting social entitlement programs and ushering in a new Gilded Age.

Trump has an ability to dodge and deflect scandals that have easily ended other powerful political careers. Unnervingly, it works like this: The more he gets backed into a corner, the more irrational he becomes, and the more likely he is to do something rash in order to distract attention. Trump is ratcheting up tensions with Iran and a nuclear-armed North Korea, and—hello?—we still don’t have an ambassador to South Korea. It’s scary to contemplate how the endgame is going to play out.

Even in the best scenario (Trump is replaced by someone who cares about the well-being of the country and the American people), the damage done in one year to this country—its institutions, systems of government, economy, and the civic fabric that has us all still believing we belong here—is going to take years to repair. Impeaching Trump will just be the first step in a long process of setting things right.

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