An unbreakable impeachment impasse might prove to be, not a crisis for America, but the one reasonable way the nation could move on from crisis and return to a somewhat more normal political process.
If the Democrats’ attempt to oust President Donald Trump from office without the inconvenience of defeating him at the polls were to remain frozen, unresolved, in mid-expulsion, it would vividly represent the people’s state of mind. It would perfectly express, not just the 50/50-ish split on the impeachment/removal question itself, but the ideological stalemate that has gripped the nation on most issues, ever more completely, for half a century now.
What’s more, an “impeachment-pending” status for the Trump presidency would allow each side in this go-for-broke dispute to step back while enjoying part of the victory it seeks.
Nothing is more clear than the improbability of the pro- and anti-impeachment factions persuading one another. In the interest of putting cards on the table, I continue to see the case much the same way I saw Bill Clinton’s impeachment fight two decades ago, as I’ve discussed before.
In each case the president did wrong, but in neither case, in my view, did the misdeeds involved constitute the kind of grave threat to America’s constitutional order that alone, in my view, would justify overturning the result of a national election — especially in Trump’s situation, when a normal-course re-election contest looms that would allow voters, rather than rival politicians, to pass judgment on this presidency.
The principal charge against Trump, after all, is that he used his presidential powers to summon interference with America’s democratic election process. But what could be a bolder and more abnormal act of interference in ordinary election processes than putting a president facing a re-election challenge on political trial as the campaign unfolds and demanding his removal before the voters can cast their ballots?
This has never been attempted in American history.
Many Americans, of course, earnestly believe Trump should be expelled. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has given voice to that conviction and voted to impeach the president. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has introduced a new maneuver by delaying delivery of the articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial — until, she says, she receives assurances that the proceedings will be what she considers fair and thorough.
It’s not apparent, at least not to me, that there is anything improper in Pelosi biding her time this way, even if, as some scholars insist, it means the House hasn’t yet officially “impeached” Trump. In fact, authorizing a pending impeachment, while putting off prosecution, may be an ingenious way to bring at least a temporary cease-fire to these hostilities without either side needing to embrace defeat.
The impeachment powers bestowed on the House and Senate are one of the U.S. Constitution’s provisions that truly justify the concept of a “living constitution” — a charter that in many areas allows later generations to redefine the powers and processes of government in light of unforeseen circumstances.
The document gives the House the “sole power” to impeach a president and the Senate the “sole power” to judge a president so accused.
There is no convincing way to interpret “sole power” except to say that the House can do with its impeachment articles whatever a majority of its members thinks proper. The Senate has similarly unchecked power over how it responds to articles.
There could be many advantages in allowing the current standoff to remain in place.
Pelosi and House Democrats can simply declare that they have delivered the strongest rebuke and condemnation of Trump’s conduct that is in their power. But the attitude of the Republican Senate majority is clear, and what Democrats would consider a full and fair trial is highly unlikely.
Rather than giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a chance to stage an acquittal and vindication of Trump, Pelosi and company could take the current impasse to the voters next fall.
“Give us a new Senate — one that would conduct a real trial” sounds like a plausible Democratic campaign theme.
Meanwhile, a lasting impasse is no disaster for Senate Republicans, either. It will relieve some vulnerable GOP members up for re-election from having to take a provocative vote to acquit Trump (a few Democrats, like Minnesota’s Sen. Tina Smith, might not regret skipping this jury duty, either).
And of course Republicans could decry and ridicule the House’s failure to press its case — and maybe invent new processes of their own to express their disdain.
Even the Democrats don’t believe they can prove their case, they’ll say.
None of this would be terribly edifying, of course, nor would it be particularly relevant to the real-world concerns of Americans. But more than the spectacle of an election-year impeachment trial — the result of which, remember, will all-but-certainly not be Trump’s removal — a continuing impeachment-pending impasse would allow 2020 candidates for president and Congress to re-focus some real attention on substantive public policy issues.
Trump probably would suffer most from postponement of his circus trial, no doubt deservedly. The climactic polarizing chaos of such an extravaganza would only keep the world’s focus riveted on the weird warrior and his Homeric struggle against the know-it-all elite. It would obscure the Democrats’ ultimate presidential nominee, who would risk getting lost in the crowd of foes playing opposite Trump in the ongoing melodrama of a trial.
Politically, Donald Trump thrives on the bizarre, and recoils from normality as a cat recoils from a bath. A continuing impeachment impasse would subject the Trump presidency to a more normal, less grandiose re-election referendum, which is less biased in his favor.
America deserves it.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.