Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has officially called for articles of impeachment to be drawn up against President Donald Trump, making him just the third chief executive to be thus called on the carpet. (Richard Nixon would have been the fourth, but he resigned before the House voted on articles of impeachment.)
In her brief remarks, Pelosi, who many Trump opponents had criticized for dragging her heels on impeachment, invoked the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution while saying that House hearings have established that the president abused the power of his office for personal gain and obstructed congressional investigations.
The facts are uncontested. The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit at the expense of our national security, by withholding military aid and crucial Oval Office meeting in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into his political rival….
His wrongdoing strikes at the very heart of our constitution. A separation of powers, three co-equal branches, each a check and balance on the other.
You can watch Pelosi's full statement below (she appears around the 30-minute mark):
For his part, Donald Trump prebutted the announcement with a pair of tweets calling for a "fast" and "fair" trial in the Senate:
…..trial in the Senate, and so that our Country can get back to business. We will have Schiff, the Bidens, Pelosi and many more testify, and will reveal, for the first time, how corrupt our system really is. I was elected to "Clean the Swamp," and that's what I am doing!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 5, 2019
This momentous occasion demands that we think outside of our partisan affiliations and the current hyperpolarized scene. Impeachment is always and everywhere a political act. As Gerald Ford, then a Republican congressman from Michigan, said in the years before Watergate brought down Richard Nixon, an impeachable offense is "whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers to be at a given moment in history."
So it's good to see Pelosi invoking the Constitution's call for a balance of powers among the branches of the federal government. There is no question that the executive branch has been too powerful for decades and it's long past due that Congress assert its role as what Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) has called the "first among the federal government's three co-equal branches." Not surprisingly, Lee and other Republicans seem less interested in reining the president when the White House is occupied by a fellow representative of the GOP.
But precisely because it is so fully a political act, impeachment is one of the worst ways to rebalance the branches of government. For all of the 21st century and much of the 20th, Congress has abdicated its role in all sorts of ways. It has not passed timely and balanced budgets; it has not insisted on a declaration of war before U.S. troops go into battle; it has given the executive branch carte blanche to create an unaccountable administrative state in which bureaucrats write and enforce their own rules.
Whether or not Donald Trump is removed from office—and whether or not he deserves to be—the impeachment process is likely to exacerbate partisanship and the worst sort of short-term thinking. In the current climate, results will be less about enduring structural reforms than how to get payback in the next election cycle. When George W. Bush was president and flouting any restraints on his power, the Democrats were up in arms—until Barack Obama was elected, and then the sides switched. For a brief, shining moment after Trump beat Hillary Clinton, liberals fretted that the executive power they lauded when Obama wielded it was a terrible, terrible thing. As they sniff victory in 2020, those concerns have once again faded.
There is a strong, principled, libertarian case that we don't impeach presidents as often as we should. In fact, Gene Healy of the Cato Institute made that argument in 2017 and will be making an expanded version of it in an upcoming issue of Reason. But that is not the case that is being made now by House Democrats.
Even as she invokes George Mason to defend impeachment—the founder asked "Shall any man be above justice?" while making the case to include a means of removing presidents who acted like kings—it's hard to believe that Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats aren't simply engaging in mere politics to remove an opponent who they fear will win reelection. For god's sake, some Democrats were talking about impeaching Trump before he even took office and Hillary Clinton still can't admit he won. Similarly, it's impossible not to accuse Republicans of bad faith when they rush to defend actions by Trump that they denounced under Obama. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) was the guy who famously said that his party's only legislative goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president (as with budget restraint, the GOP failed miserably).
Until congressional leaders can credibly show that they will enforce the same standards of behavior on their fellow party members, I think impeachment and similar actions will only pour gasoline on the dumpster fire that has been American politics for all of the 21st century. Rather than extinguishing the flames, it will turn up the heat. And those of us who stand outside of the lowest form of political tribalism will get burned.