Robert Mueller’s statement on the Russia investigation this week implies that Congress should move to impeach President Trump and has led to Democrats calling for Trump’s impeachment. If they are to do so, it is crucial that these proceedings are bipartisan to avoid future abuses of the system.
Mueller said two things that should be of interest to Congress. Firstly, “if we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” This is awkward for Trump, who is very happy to proclaim that the fact that the report did not say he committed crimes means that no crime was committed. This suggests that there are reasonable grounds to think that the President did commit a crime.
Secondly, however, Mueller points out that it was not his job to decide if the President had, in fact, committed a crime. Working for the Justice Department, he was bound by their guidelines, which state that a sitting President cannot be charged with a federal crime. Only Congress can charge President Trump with a crime because otherwise, he could theoretically pardon himself from criminal charges; although such an action would undoubtedly count as high crimes or misdemeanour and meet the requirement for Congress to impeach and for the Senate to end his term as President.
Technically, all the Democrats need to impeach Donald Trump is a bare majority of votes in Congress. They just need to have one vote more than half, and then Trump would be impeached. The Democrats already have these votes, so why not impeach him and leave the Senate to decide if he is innocent or guilty?
Because doing so sets a dangerous precedent. Next time there is a Democratic President and the Republicans control the house, they could just impeach the President because they disagree with them. The purpose of impeachment is not to remove an unpopular President, but to decide if the President has, in fact, committed misdemeanours that undermine their office. The crimes don’t have to be blatantly obvious like Watergate (which lead to Nixon’s resignation to avoid impeachment), but the proceedings have to attract bipartisan support. Not doing so undermines the process, puts future Presidents unduly at risk, and renders impeachments proceedings pointless: the Republican-controlled Senate is not going to consider convicting Trump on charges brought along partisan lines.
The Mueller report does not exonerate Trump, nor does it accuse him of a crime. Congress should probably look to see if the President has in fact committed a crime, but it needs to be the whole of Congress. The Democrat majority need to build bipartisan support among House Republicans. This, I suspect, is behind Nancy Pelosi’s statement that, “you don’t bring an impeachment unless you have all the facts.” Impeachment is a risky political move — it’s not worth playing the Trump card until all other opportunities are exhausted. If Trump was impeached only to be exonerated in the Senate, it would only serve to empower him, and would no doubt cost the Democrats the 2020 election.
It has to be Congress that impeaches Trump, not just the Democrat party majority. If the Democrats wish to impeach Trump, they need to tread carefully and build bipartisan support. Otherwise, they will only make him more powerful.