The Mueller investigation was supposed to be a legal process concerned with crimes. Investigators identified no crimes to charge, and so it has, naturally, become something else: no longer a theory about a criminal conspiracy — only an irritable mood.
An ordeal that had been conducted under the procedures of law in accordance with legal criteria is now an ordeal that is being conducted under the procedures of politics in accordance with political criteria — or, if you prefer, with moral criteria related to Donald Trump’s character. For those who want to see President Trump impeached and who think of impeachment as a fundamentally political process in spite of its mock-trial aspect, that’s just fine. They’ll take their pound of flesh, however it is had.
The problem with this point of view is that the question of Donald Trump’s personal fitness for office already has been adjudicated as a political matter: That is what happened in the 2016 presidential election. Many critics, myself included, argued that Trump was unfit for the office, both morally and intellectually. We made our arguments, the voters consulted their own consciences, and, weighing these things however it is that voters weigh them, chose Trump. There wasn’t some occult intermediary step in there. That’s how things go in politics: The people behave just as if they had minds of their own! And, sometimes, they get to have their own way.
In terms of Donald Trump’s character and habits, there is practically nothing in the Mueller report — or in the public record since 2016 — that voters did not already know when they elected him. And that is really the fundamental argument against impeaching President Trump: The political judgment called for in an impeachment at this point and in this context properly ought to be understood as beside the point, if we take seriously the democratic assumption that the judgment of the people, rendered in the election, is sovereign.
There isn’t some shocking new thing, and, of course, some Democrats have been talking impeachment since before Trump was even sworn in. The Democrats do not propose to impeach Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors, but simply for being Donald Trump. One may sympathize with that, but Donald Trump is the man the voters chose.
And that goes to the real issue here: The Democrats cannot accept that they lost an election to Donald Trump. One sympathizes with that, too, but that is what actually happened, for several reasons: Trump focused on two issues — immigration and trade — that speak to a substantial bipartisan plurality with nationalistic and protectionist impulses rarely taken seriously by mainstream figures in either party; his opponent ran an inept campaign and has been questing after power for so long that both she and the voters are exhausted by it; the “elites” and Washingtonians against whom Trump & Co. inveigh were judged, not without some reason, to merit a trip to the woodshed; the so-called war on terror and the financial crisis of 2008–09 have destabilized formerly sturdy political coalitions. And, of course, it was Republicans’ turn.
Which is to say: The Democrats’ talk of impeachment is partly about 2020, but it’s mainly about 2016, and their adolescent psychic need to believe that the presidential election that brought Donald Trump to the White House was illegitimate rather than an opportunity they simply blew. The theory that the election was thrown by Russian trolls posting dank memes on Twitter is hard to take seriously. If we had a list of every voter whose mind was changed in 2016 by an anonymous social-media account with a Cyrillic bio, then disenfranchising those voters would be a good start on improving things for 2020. Alas and alack, we don’t do that sort of thing. But the argument that bot-executed shenanigans nullified democracy in 2016 amounts to the Democrats protesting: “These trolls robbed us of the support of our natural base: morons!”
There’s no quality control in social media — and less quality control in ordinary news media than there used to be. Lies, distortions, exaggerations, and pure inventions are going to be out there in the intellectual marketplace, whether they originate in Moscow or in Brooklyn. That’s a real problem, but it doesn’t invalidate the outcome of the 2016 election.
There are many reasons to oppose an impeachment at this time: One is that no one has made a very persuasive case for one, all of the Democrats’ arguments up to this point having been transparently pretextual. Another is that the Republican majority in the Senate all but ensures that the process would be purely symbolic, an exercise in chaos for pleasure’s sake. A third is that it normalizes the invocation of a procedure that should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances in the service of ordinary short-term partisan interests. For comparison, consider that there was no serious impeachment talk when Barack Obama authorized the assassination of U.S. citizens without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress — or when he took executive actions that he himself had described as unconstitutional only months before. That suggests a pretty high standard — and if “I think that guy is a fink!” ends up being a common rationale for impeachment, then you’d better make your peace with anarchy, because Washington is going to be a ghost town.
But the most important reason for forbearance here is that a political judgment already has been rendered on Donald Trump’s character — and, if you don’t like how that came out, there’s another chance right around the corner.