Right Opinion

Mueller's Exit and an Impeachment Alternative

Trying to overturn an election would be too divisive. Congress should censure Trump instead.

Peggy Noonan · Jun. 8, 2019

The investigation is complete, his office is closed, he returns to private life. And Robert Mueller leaves in his wake a great murk, doesn’t he?

Even in his statement this week, presumably aimed in part at making things clearer, he spoke between the lines. What did he say, between the lines? Apparently I was too subtle for you. Apparently you are a large, balky mule in need of being hit over the head with a stick. So let me try again. I cannot bring federal charges against a sitting president because I believe it is constitutionally prohibited. And since there couldn’t be a trial, it would be unfair to leave him unable to defend himself. But someone else, according to the Constitution, can bring charges. Someone else can hold a public trial. Who? It rhymes with shmongress. Good luck, shmongressmen.

Mr. Mueller is a serious man who in a long career has earned the respect in which he is held. But he’s slipped out of public life on a banana peel, hasn’t he? He was the investigator. He led the probe. He should have advised Attorney General William Barr of his views as to whether the actions of the president merited federal charges, and let Mr. Barr take it from there.

If Justice Department guidelines had been otherwise — if federal charges could be brought against a sitting president — would Mr. Mueller have recommended them? That’s the question. Instead we get “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Oh.

Independent counsel Ken Starr wasn’t so shy with Bill Clinton: His 1998 report outlined to Congress 11 possible grounds for impeachment.

I’m sure Mr. Mueller was trying to demonstrate probity. But it looked to me like a loss of nerve. You can have probity plus clarity, and clarity was what was needed.

The spirit of impeachment is now given a boost.

It is still a terrible idea.

It is a grave matter to overturn an election result. Why more cuttingly divide an already divided country? There is no argument that impeachment would enhance America’s position in the world, and no reason to believe it would not have some negative impact on the economy, meaning jobs. The presidential election is in 2020. What is gained from devoting the coming year to an effort that will fail in the Senate? There’s no reason to believe the public is for it. It won’t move the needle — those who like President Trump, like him; those who do not, do not; everyone already knows what they think. For Democrats it could backfire, alienating moderates and rousing those of the president’s supporters who care little for him personally but appreciate his policy achievements, such as his appointment of judges. Why rouse their wrath? If Mr. Trump is acquitted he will pose as the innocent but unstoppable victor over a witch hunt led by a liberal elite.

At this point, could Democrats even do it? Impeachment is “a heavy lift,” as Chris Matthews said on MSNBC the other day. It takes time and focus to organize it politically and legally, to get the committee chairmen on board and investigators mobilized.

And Speaker Nancy Pelosi is famously not on board. She will continue to play her careful game. “Nothing is off the table,” she said a few hours after Mr. Mueller spoke Wednesday. Democrats must investigate fully so they can find the truth and make the case. She will support hearings and subpoenas, slow and deepen the process, and, I suspect, move to impeach only if he is re-elected.

This is a way of playing for time. Progressive Democrats likely won’t be as hot for impeachment in the fall, when the 2020 contenders are taking full flight and party energy goes to helping them. Mrs. Pelosi is a practical woman.

She is always underestimated by Republicans as the Shaky Lady. She doesn’t seem shaky to me. She is running rings around Mr. Trump and her own conference.

Mr. Trump is obsessed with looking competent and in control. She actually is competent and in control. She’s held on to leadership a long time.

“She knows how to count,” they say, but it’s more than that. The young progressives in her conference who are not shy to be aggressive against others, never want to get crosswise with her. She inspires respect and fear, which is what she needs to inspire. She is said to know where everyone in her conference stands, what they need, and how to keep them or flip them. She apparently gets first-rate intel from her staff and is an epic fundraiser. She takes pleasure in the game, handles Donald Trump like a boss — she is the sole figure in Washington who seems unfazed by him — and does all this as a woman in her 70s with a public presentation that is not compelling. If she’d been born British and was a Conservative, they’d probably have Brexit by now.

History should pay more serious attention to this unique figure.

She is especially disliked by Republicans, and has been knocked in this space, for having said, during the ObamaCare debate, that Congress would have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it. I always thought it was a Washington gaffe as per Michael Kinsley, something that should never have been said because it was true. ObamaCare was a thousand-page sentiment devised by technocrats, an impulse with numbers and graphs. Few who voted for it knew or were interested in knowing how it would be executed, administered, interpreted. It was a ramshackle mess and they’d figure it out later. They seemed as surprised as anyone when it turned out if you wanted to keep your doctor you couldn’t. A lot of them lost their jobs over it in 2010. Mrs. Pelosi’s sin was not that she said it; her sin, and her party’s, was that they didn’t care. Their sentiment was more important than your reality.

But she’s Mr. Trump’s most effective foe and he’s lucky she’s there because she’s what stands between him and impeachment.

What is the best way forward? There’s a good idea floating around Washington. It is congressional censure of the president.

The harrowing part of the Mueller report is part 2, on obstruction of justice. Reading it, you feel sure the president would have loved to subvert the investigation but wasn’t good at it and was thwarted by his staff. There are seemingly dangled pardons and threatened firings. There’s a hapless small-timeness to it, a kind of brute dumbness, and towering over it all is a grubby business deal in Moscow.

It’s unseemly.

Congressional censure would be a formal registering not of Congress’s political disapproval but its moral disapproval. It is a rarely used form of shaming. Congress has censured its own members over the years, including Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954 — but no president since Andrew Jackson in 1834.

Republicans, who control the Senate, wouldn’t vote to remove the president, but to morally disapprove of him? They would. There’s plenty of suppressed resentment there at how he’s mortified them and lowered things.

That is the less invasive path, the less damaging to the country, the less pointlessly polarizing.


Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.

Don't miss Peggy Noonan and other great columnists. Subscribe today!

Click here to show comments

It's Right. It's Free.