The trickle of calls from anti-Trump constituents was already growing into a steady flow: It’s time to impeach, they said.
Then came Wednesday. Robert Mueller spoke publicly about his investigation for the first time, and he made clear that, although his team had laid out an obstruction-of-justice case against the president, it was up to Congress to pursue it if they wished.
That day, the dam broke and a flood of calls poured into Southern Arizona congressional offices.
“Our office phone has been ringing all day long, and you know what people are saying: They want impeachment,” U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick said during a town hall Wednesday evening at Rincon Congregational Church, 122 N. Craycroft Road.
The crowd cheered, but Kirkpatrick gave mixed signals about how willing she really is to pursue impeachment now.
During their week home from Washington, D.C., Southern Arizona’s three members of Congress, all Democrats, heard from lots of agitated residents wanting them to push for impeachment of President Trump. I interviewed all three, and they reacted about as you’d expect they would.
Both Kirkpatrick and Rep. Tom O’Halleran, who represent swing districts potentially vulnerable to Republican challengers, said they don’t want the House to start an impeachment inquiry right now. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the progressive of the trio who represents a safer seat, is ready to start impeachment hearings now.
But all three, in my view, take too narrow a view of the impeachment question.
After a Tuesday night event in Oro Valley, O’Halleran told me he’s content with the approach Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is taking. She wants to keep having individual committees, such as the Judiciary Committee, investigate aspects of Trump’s presidency, rather than open up a full-blown impeachment inquiry.
“We should make sure that before we go forward with anything, we have the relevant information to bring to the American people that the action is justified,” O’Halleran said.
Kirkpatrick said much the same thing at her town hall, but then allowed that Mueller had probably laid out a sufficient case in his report to justify impeachment proceedings. When I spoke with her Friday, she clarified she wants to stay the course.
“I think the House should continue its investigations. As a former prosecutor, you want the best evidence possible before you charge the crime,” she said. “Nobody’s above the law, including the president. I just don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
Grijalva was watching a repeat of Mueller’s Wednesday comments when I met him at his Tucson office that morning. Like the other two, he’s aware that impeachment is risky.
“I understand the political calculation of going deliberate and cautiously forward on impeachment because of the lack of bipartisan support, because the Senate won’t do anything and because your could turn Trump into a martyr,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, the House majority has “another judgment coming, and that’s the defense of the institution as a separate and equal branch of government. We’re going to get judged on that one. History will do that.”
Of the three, Grijalva came closest to grasping the bind that Trump and Mueller have put them in. On Wednesday Mueller said, “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
He added, “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
In other words, he was telling Congress, in essence: “This report is our obstruction case against the president. It’s up to you to pursue it through impeachment if you want.” In that situation, if Congress doesn’t pursue impeachment, it is opening the door to further potential crimes by the president.
But there’s a bigger issue that none of the three House members were willing to grapple with: Impeachment is not just about violations of criminal law.
When the Founders were discussing adding an impeachment clause to the Constitution, they first singled out treason and bribery as the only allowed causes.
Then “maladministration” was suggested as an additional cause for impeachment, but James Madison objected to it. Instead, the founders agreed to George Mason’s suggestion of adding “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The point was not simply to establish an independent avenue for considering crimes by presidents and other government officers, but to set up a process for addressing broader abuses of power and denigration of the office.
When you consider impeachment in this light, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment looks much more justified — he lied under oath, even if it was about sex, and that’s no small thing.
Now, if you consider the Trump presidency under that same standard, the potential grounds for impeachment are plentiful.
One of the clearest is his use of the office for profit. Since he didn’t put his business interests in a blind trust, Trump is able to use his presidency to make more money from properties such as the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.
He’s particularly vulnerable on this score because of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits American officeholders from accepting gifts from foreign governments. A parade of foreign officials has been staying at his properties in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the president, and that conflict is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.
Also consider Trump’s many efforts to strong-arm private businesses. Perhaps most prominent among the president’s victims has been Amazon, whom Trump has accused of cheating the U.S. Postal Service and using the Washington Post, also owned by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, as its lobbying arm. Trump’s verbal attacks caused the company to lose $54 billion in market value in one day in March 2018.
But there is also the open question of whether Trump pressured the Justice Department to block the proposed purchase of Time Warner by AT&T. Trump opposed the merger even before he became president, citing the fact that a news channel he hates, CNN, is owned by Time Warner. A March report by The New Yorker said he pressured aides to ensure the Justice Department filed suit to block the merger.
That case also bleeds over into another potential cause for impeachment — the president’s efforts to use the government’s investigative apparatus against his political enemies.
This started with demands that the Justice Department investigate Hillary Clinton, and has continued till today with the recent effort to investigate the people who started the investigation into his campaign’s potential contacts with Russia.
Alarmingly, now he has an attorney general, William Barr, who believes the president has the legitimate power to demand investigation.
So, the Mueller report may provide an easy-to-follow road map for impeachment of the president, and House members would be shirking their duty not to start down that path now that Mueller has pointed the way.
But if members of the House like Grijalva, Kirkpatrick and O’Halleran limit their view to those attempts at obstruction, they’re missing the bigger picture of what is really wrong with this presidency and why Trump should be held to account the way the Founders intended.