Transpartisan Note #111
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
Mueller hits a single. Next up, Congress. On deck, the people. The Report is out. Talk shows and late night comics buzz nonstop. They work overtime to continue the story through the next election and, if possible, beyond.
“Trump ravages the White House” stories print money for the media. What the president of CBS said during the 2016 election remains true today. Trump may or may not be good for the country but he is great for the media.
“Man,” the CBS boss said, “who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” There is use for much talk about next steps. Mueller turned a lot of “fake news” into useable fact.
The Special Counsel made three powerful distinctions:
- The office of Presidency is bigger than the current or any occupant of that office;
- A powerful cyberattack on the nation is different from the Trump Keystone Kops desire to benefit from that attack;
- An unbridled desire to obstruct justice falls short of legal liability if it fails to actually obstruct justice.
These distinctions give us all we need to know to draw some simple conclusions:
First, Mueller decided—sensibly, in our view—to pass the question “can a sitting president be indicted” to Congress. An “impeachment” is an indictment by the House of Representatives. It finds enough (substantial) evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors for a Senate trial. The House impeached (indicted) two presidents (Johnson 1868 and Clinton 1998). The Senate convicted none. One (Nixon 1974) resigned when threatened with impeachment.
People disagree about the power of evidence proving Trump’s criminal behavior. Mueller decided that whatever Trump’s intent his ineptitude and staff rebellion meant no need at this point to call on the courts to rein him in. We think Mueller came to the right conclusion. Ultimately the decision to remove a sitting President, absent clear and present extraordinary danger, should be—must be—is—a political decision investigated by the House and, if needed, decided by the Senate.
Transpartisan focuses on the Presidency as well as this particular President. Powerful post WWII forces of individuation—people increasingly expressing their unique “identity”—now shape the nation. For Democrats, Republicans, and the two-thirds plus of the electorate who fail to register as either, experience Presidential resiliency is being threatened by the breakdown of group identity.
Since 1945, the nation has seen one Presidential assassination, one resignation, one impeachment, one unelected President, and two presidents deciding against a second term. Is the Presidency holding? Mueller says yes—for now.
Second, Mueller decided that Trump attempting to benefit from obstructing justice and a cyber-attack did not rise to the level of a “legal” matter for the courts. He left it as a “political” matter for the Congress. With Mueller out of the way, the issue now is for Congress to go or not go for impeachment and removal. [Attorney General Barr is also out of the way. The abundant evidence of Mueller’s Report leaves Barr room to withstand accusations of ‘political’ intervention for protecting the President since he acts, his defense says, to protect the Presidency in general rather than this particular President.]
If you think the evidence is sufficient to believe the President has committed a crime, then the substantive case for impeachment is established; and Congress should impeach Trump on the merits. If you agree with Mueller that the evidence is insufficient to establish a legal case for criminal activity the President might still be impeached (indicted).
The legal test is different than the political test. The political question is—on the merits—does the pattern of attempted obstruction and failure to respond to the cyber-attack endanger the nation so precipitously that Trump should be impeached by the House and then removed by the Senate. Is the matter serious enough to preempt the will of the people at an election a little more than a year and a half away?
The Transpartisan Matrix, free and order, right and left, says the order quadrants (both Republican and Democratic) resist impeachment while the free quadrants are split. The rank and file democrats seek impeachment while the rank and file Republicans still hold out against impeachment. Speaker Pelosi says only bipartisan impeachment will be on the table. Thus, investigation for more facts while the people wait on deck for the November 2020 election.
Third, Mueller found that an unbridled desire to obstruct justice falls short of legal liability if it fails to actually obstruct justice. The debate on the talk shows and late night jokes are now focused on the political issue. Impeaching a President only eighteen months from an election that will empower voters to ‘impeach’ him by voting him out of office would create great uncertainty that no politician wants to embrace. And the election may not be definitive.
Nixon left office 19 months after winning the Presidency by the largest landslide in American History (60.7% of the vote). No politician wants to turn a Presidential election into a coin-flip. This explains why both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Shumer, the Democratic Congressional leaders, are thumbs down on impeachment. Trump in office might provide them with their strongest electoral issue in 2020.
In coming days we will see how they do it, if they can. Their dilemma is intensified by the continuing temptation to persist in the drum-beat on the President’s ‘misdeeds’ that Mueller’s Report records in minute detail. The longer the drum-beat persists (which the Democrats, supported by the media, may find irresistible), voters will increasingly start to ask: if he is so bad, why don’t you impeach? The Democrats will say the Republicans won’t let us.
The media, in the entertainment business, will love every minute as they continue achieving record audiences hoping the drama will never end.
Featured image of Robert Mueller from official White House photograph.