Op-Ed: The Mueller Report Probably Supports Impeachment — But That’s a Mistake
By Kenny Larson
“This is the end of my Presidency. I’m [expletive].”
I am not sure what else I expected to hear from the chief executive of the United States after Robert Mueller, Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General of the United States. The quote, one of Mueller’s many discoveries after a nearly two-year investigation into President Donald Trump and his alleged links to the Russian government, was made available to the public with the release of a 448-page report on April 30, 2019.
Admittedly, the report’s release was messier than most political pundits expected, even considering the Trump administration’s usual media antics: Attorney General of the United States William Barr prefaced the release with a four-page summary determined to be misleading by both the media and Mueller himself; large swaths of the report were redacted by Barr in spite of Mueller’s recommendations that they not be. As a result, the Attorney General’s unfavorability ratings saw an increase of four points in the days after the report, while only 22% of Americans held a favorable opinion of him (according to a recent Morning Consult poll). The same poll also uncovered bad news for the president — his approval rating dropped from 44% to 39% in a matter of days — the lowest he had experienced since August of 2017, shortly after the Charlottesville riots.
But in addition to these blunders and poor outcomes for the president, Democratic congressional leaders were also somewhat negatively impacted by the report’s release. Although Mueller’s investigation concluded that the Russian government did, in fact, interfere in the 2016 presidential election, the report also definitively stated that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” This determination left many Democrats scrambling to change their political messaging on Trump, considering that many of them had run elections in Nov. of 2018 at least partially on the message that the president had conspired with Russia.
The answer, however, for many of these Democrats was also found in the special counsel’s report. As part of his investigation, Mueller examined slightly less than a dozen alleged incidences of obstruction of justice committed by Trump during his tenure as president. Compelling, well-sourced, and certainly prosecutable according to many legal experts (like the New York Times’ Charlie Savage), the report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” although this was only because the special counsel “determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment…” Perhaps most interestingly, however, the report clarified that it “does not exonerate [Trump],” which led many Democrats to accuse the president of obstructing justice.
For many Democrats, the logical conclusion to these allegations is impeachment. It was, in fact, the exact same justification that Republicans in 1998 used to impeach President Bill Clinton. And while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has cautioned against impeachment since she ascended into power earlier this year, her mind is beginning to change in the wake of Mueller’s report and obstruction of justice findings. “Every single day,” she said at a Washington Post Live event, “whether it’s obstruction, obstruction, obstruction — obstruction of having people come to the table with facts… ignoring subpoenas, every single day, the president… is becoming self-impeachable…”
In Pelosi’s defense, the Mueller report certainly makes a compelling argument for impeaching Trump — if not subtly, then heavily implied — based on its unrequired comprehensiveness, analysis of nearly a dozen possible charges, and investigation into the president’s motivations. But I caution any Democrat, including the speaker herself, into proceeding with these charges.
Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, presents the argument against impeachment fairly succinctly. The public has a narrow and nuanced opinion on impeachment: polling indicates that the bulk of Americans believe that Trump has committed wrongdoings and that the Mueller report supports these findings, but that same demographic also does not support impeaching the president. Given that impeachment is an inherently political process, as intended by the founders of the Constitution, Democrats should wait until Nov. of 2020 to remove Mr. Trump from his position.
I entirely agree with Silver’s position, although I would also take it a step further by making three additional arguments. Firstly, even if the House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against Trump, it would undoubtedly meet terminal opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky). As such, removing Trump early from office under some vague motive to “restore the rule of law” is little more than a pipedream, even if public support shifted against the president.
Secondly, presuming Trump is removed from his position, Vice President of the United States Michael Pence would take over. For every accusation of gross incompetence Democrats have lobbed against Trump, the vice president’s ability to navigate the political arena would propel Republican policies forward and destroy Democratic legislative achievements. In many respects, Trump’s perpetual flip-flopping and shifting opinions — one need not look farther than the DACA/government funding debacle as evidence of this — are what allowed Democrats to mount a successful resistance to GOP-control of all three branches of the federal government.
Finally, impeaching Trump would doom Democratic chances to retake the White House, Senate, and retain control of the House. Even the most generous polling data in favor of impeachment gives Democrats a slim plurality among all voters in favor of impeachment, and that support is almost certain to go down as the proceedings drag on. Just like the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which led to major Republican gains in the 2010 midterm election, Democrats should fear electoral struggles after undertaking such an unpopular, polarized, and inevitably futile task.
While Trump should not fear “the end of my presidency” from the release of the special counsel’s report, that does not mean that he has nothing to worry about. Stagnant approval ratings in the low-40s despite a strong economy, a crushing midterm loss, shifting opinions of independents, and a rocky Mueller report release could still spell doom for the president in 2020. Only time will tell how lucky he is.