President Trump will be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Senate will not vote to remove him from office.
The sun will rise tomorrow.
The Washington Redskins will muddle through yet another disappointing season.
All these things seem equally certain. The latter two events — the daily procession of the sun across the sky and the annual collapse of so-called professional football team in the nation’s capital — we are now accustomed to. The impeachment of a president is, thankfully, still unusual enough to be noteworthy, although future historians might wonder why we made it through our first 176 years with only a single presidential impeachment and now have our third attempt in the past 45 years. As with many things, there are at least two ways to see things. One is that these impeachment efforts against Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and now Donald Trump are signs that our constitutional government works just fine when it comes to correcting presidential misbehavior. The other is that the increasing use of the impeachment option is not a symptom of a healthy republic. So which is it? The fundamental question here is pretty clear: Did Trump commit an impeachable offense when he asked the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival? As Americans ponder that question, here are some others related to it:
1. Why is this a partisan question? Democrats see this clearly as an abuse of presidential power; Republicans see it simply as the Democrats’ seething hatred of Trump. A thought experiment: How would Republicans have felt if Barack Obama had called up some foreign government to ask for help in digging up dirt on Mitt Romney? We suspect then Republicans would be in high dudgeon and Democrats would be excusing the call as a routine and legitimate inquiry. Consistency is neither party’s strong suit. The more incriminating thing for Trump is not the phone call to Ukraine but his June interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in which he said he might indeed accept political dirt from foreign governments and wouldn’t necessarily tell the FBI. To use the language of trial lawyers, this is not a helpful “fact pattern.” First, Trump said hypothetically he’d do something and then follows up by actually doing it. Why weren’t more people outraged by an American president saying he’d accept political dirt from foreign governments?
2. Why did a Ukrainian gas company put Joe Biden’s son on its board and pay him $50,000 a month? Democrats see this question as an example of false equivalency. It may not be equivalent to Trump’s offense, but it’s certainly not false. The most logical explanation is that the Ukrainian gas company Burisma was engaging in politics as usual — to curry favor in Washington, it hired the son of the former American vice president. There’s nothing illegal about that, but it still looks bad. The left-leaning Atlantic magazine called this “Hunter Biden’s perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption” and then advised: “Donald Trump committed an impeachable offense, but prominent Americans also shouldn’t be leveraging their names for payoffs from shady clients abroad.” Democrats could easily solve this problem by not nominating Biden for president. Of course, they might not nominate Biden for other reasons — his center-left politics are out of step with the leftward lurch of the party’s activist base. But if Democrats do nominate Biden —and polls consistently show he runs stronger against Trump than any other candidate available —they will have to spend 2020 explaining why Biden’s son was cashing in on his father’s status.
3. Did Trump commit an actual crime? Many Republicans insist he didn’t; Democrats see this as a clear-cut case of extortion. None of that really matters, though. Democrats have a stronger argument for impeachment, of course, if there’s a clearly indictable offense. The constitutional standard for impeachment, though, is vague: “High crimes and misdemeanors.” What are they? A prominent Republican once advocated a very elastic standard. “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” That’s what then-U.S. Rep. Gerald Ford said in 1970 when some Republicans wanted to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose liberalism offended their sensibilities. Republicans will not be quoting that Republican in the coming debates. See what we said above about consistency.
4. Do we have any Caldwell Butlers left? Or any Barry Goldwaters? Butler was the freshman Republican from Roanoke who courageously broke with his party to vote to impeach Nixon in 1974, declaring “for years, we Republicans have campaigned against corruption and misconduct ... by the other party. But Watergate is our shame.” Are any Republicans today capable of that kind of political bravery? We remember Butler because he was local, but it was Goldwater — then a Republican senator from Arizona — who was among a delegation of GOP leaders who told Nixon he’d likely get convicted. It’s hard to imagine, say, Mitch McConnell doing the same thing. Over the years, both parties have become less tolerant of independent thought — witness the Republicans unhappy that the otherwise conservative U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Nelson County, officiated at a same-sex wedding.
5. What precedent does impeachment set? And what precedent does a Senate acquittal set? Democrats know the Republican-controlled Senate will never vote to remove Trump. They’re taking a political risk because polls show the country isn’t in a mood for impeachment (although opinion does seem to be shifting some). They can argue that they’re forced to take a principled but unpopular stand — although they’d have a better time with that argument if they didn’t have certain members who came into office declaring “we’re going to impeach the [you know the word].” Their, um, enthusiasm, tarnishes the Democratic argument. In any case, here are some questions that deserve more discussion: What good does it do to impeach a president you know won’t be removed from office? Does the mere attempt serve as a warning that will restrain future presidents? Or does his acquittal set a precedent that the behavior in question is now perfectly acceptable? If the former, then impeachment doesn’t cure the current disease but serves as an inoculation against future outbreaks. If the latter, then both Democrats and Republicans are opening a dangerous door.