It looks like the House of Representatives will formally vote this week to open an impeachment inquiry on Donald Trump. The move is unnecessary but doubtless the Trump Administration will quickly find another rationale for why it can’t provide testimony and documents for the inquiry. One thing Trump is good at is moving goalposts.
To be clear, the House has the sole power to impeach. The U.S. Constitution is silent on procedures it must use. If the House wanted to, it could conduct it entirely in secret, including the final vote on impeachment. An impeachment is not a trial; it’s the political equivalent of a grand jury indictment. Trump has no more right to open impeachment hearings than he had to be in the grand jury room during Robert Mueller’s investigation into him. An impeachment is a political indictment saying there are probable grounds to think that the president engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors. The Senate has the sole power to remove someone from federal office. Trump’s trial would happen there and both prosecutors and the defendant would have the right to present their case. It’s a very high bar to remove someone from office by impeachment, as it takes two-thirds of senators present to convict.
Trump’s reaction to the impeachment though is symptomatic of his general problem: he assumes he can make whatever rules he wants. His lawyer has taken it to the ultimate extreme, claiming in court that the Constitution gives the president blanket immunity from all actions while in office. This cannot be. If courts upheld this, it would be the end of our republic. A president truly immune from prosecution while in office could cancel elections and declare himself president for life.
So presumably this has no chance in the courts. But to Trump, it may not matter. He thinks he is a dictator and acts like one. So why not ignore the courts? He wouldn’t be the first president. Andrew Jackson ignored Supreme Court decisions he didn’t like, figuring that the court had no way to enforce its decisions. He was right and this points to a fundamental flaw in our system of government: it assumes our Justice Department is not corruptible, because it’s that department which enforces federal law. And ultimately the Justice Department reports to the President. It would be better if the Justice Department was run by our court system.
But lately it sure looks like the Justice Department under Bill Barr is corruptible. Recently, it announced a criminal investigation into Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump. Also, Bill Barr is running around Europe on taxpayer dollars trying to get foreign governments to investigate crazy allegations against Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. Barr is breaking the law by illegally interfering in our election. Logically, he should be impeached too. By statute, the department is supposed to enforce the law as written. Bill Barr though believes his job is to follow out orders by the president instead.
Likely most of the people who voted for Donald Trump were sick to death of our system of government. They saw Trump as the Great Orange Bully that would be the bull in the china shop, breaking things so that the inertia that has characterized our government for the last couple of decades finally comes to an end.
There’s no question that our system of government is hard to legally change. The task is made much harder when those who control it largely are not accountable to voters. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and the endless amounts of money the U.S. Supreme Court is content to allow to be spent on elections makes this already Herculean task that much harder. This explains why some of the most prominent Democratic presidential candidate are running a campaign a lot like Trumps: calling for large structural changes. Doubtless a President Warren or a President Sanders would try to push things to the limit to affect these changes. But it’s unlikely that they would openly break the law to do so. In some ways, this is an admission that their campaign promises are doomed to fail if elected.
So likely is Donald Trump’s presidency. He certainly is breaking things, but our bureaucracy is the bigger and more enduring force and will probably be able to fix the china shop when he is gone, though it may take a few decades. You can see this in whistleblowers coming forward and people agreeing to testify anyhow. The only way that Trump’s changes last is if he can get away with things.
Chances are he will, if he can stay in office. Assuming our justice system is still around after he leaves, he’ll be spending most of the rest of his life as a defendant, if not in prison. Which is why dictatorship appeals to him. He figures he doesn’t have much of a choice but to act like a dictator. His only way out seems to be to never relinquish power.
The most dangerous time for our republic is not yet here. It happens after the November 2020 election. If Trump is reelected, he may well succeed in destroying our government’s fundamental structures. Acquitted by the Senate and presumably given the go ahead by the American people, there is nothing to stop him. If the Senate couldn’t convict him the first time for his many egregious crimes, they likely won’t during a second term.
But if he loses, he has to be removed from office. At that point we all have to hold our breath. He will rally his supporters to take things into their own hands to protect him, which means civil unrest. Ultimately it will come down to our military: will they support Trump or their country? Chances are in January 2021, we will find out. God help us.