Janan Ganesh: Polling booth the safest way to beat Donald Trump

History teaches us that impeachment could poison body politic for decades to come

Robert Mueller: A survey last week found that 44 per cent of Americans now see his investigation as a “political witch hunt”. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Robert Mueller: A survey last week found that 44 per cent of Americans now see his investigation as a “political witch hunt”. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

 

A bartender’s demand for photo ID can do it. Or television footage of a Hollywood perp walk. Either way, a stranger is not long in the US before something underscores the near-scriptural sacredness of laws here. That no person can buck them outweighs democratic participation as the central principle of the republic.

If that ideal seems unattainable, remember that a middle-aged American has already seen formal investigations bring down one president (Richard Nixon), tie up another (Bill Clinton) and begin to menace a third. If Donald Trump were to obstruct Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, or the special counsel were to find evidence against him, the president would face a fight for his job. He can enlist the Republican base in a tenacious defence.

And that, as unprincipled as it sounds, is where American legal rigour must pay some mind to American social peace. Most senior Democrats believe that Trump has to be defeated in open electoral combat. They are right. A more legalistic removal of him, either through impeachment or forced resignation, risks fouling the atmosphere of public life for decades. (It is the smallest of consolations that it is foul already.) Almost regardless of what Mueller finds, or how Trump treats the probe, a large minority of the electorate would interpret his demise as an establishment stitch-up. Their suspicion is no less potent for being misplaced.

Washington’s obsessives have scrutinised the midterm election polls all year, but the more telling opinion data concerns Mueller’s work. A Quinnipiac survey last week found that 44 per cent of Americans now see it as a “political witch hunt”. Last month 61 per cent of Republicans told YouGov that Trump was being framed. Most Americans say they want the investigation to take its course but the president’s talents as a smearer are working against the necessarily silent Mueller. Conservative America is clearing its throat for a mighty howl in defence of its man. What the legal pursuit of him has in due process it could come to lack in perceived legitimacy.

No parallels

There is no solace to be found in precedent. The US survived the Nixon and Clinton investigations but neither case truly parallels the one before us. The fall of Nixon was a bipartisan affair. Congressional Republicans voted for articles of impeachment in committee. Tribal fealties are stronger now than in 1974. It is hard to imagine what Jerry Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House judiciary committee, calls an “appreciable fraction” of Republicans turning on the president. As for Clinton, he survived the 1990s investigation and saw out his two terms with some ease. The removal of a president releases more poison into the body politic than a near-miss.

A veteran Democratic cabinet member privately theorises that the investigation of Clinton was “revenge” for Watergate and that proceedings against Trump, even if warranted, would beget another round. If he spoke for all Democrats, the subject would be moot.

But there is the resistance. Tom Steyer, a businessman, campaigns nationwide for impeachment. Some Congressional Democrats would move against Trump if they were to win the House of Representatives in November, and others could be persuaded to if he fired Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general who supervises Muller.

Liberal voters

There are liberal voters to woo in the Democratic presidential primaries. And apolitical Americans who do not think their president can expect Marquess of Queensberry rules when he flouts them himself.

There is no way to urge restraint here without cringing. To not apply the constitution for the sake of a quiet life is unbecoming of a great republic, especially one founded to fight the caprice of a king. Although it is hard to divine Mueller’s likely findings from his inscrutable Easter Island face, or from his airtight team, clear presidential wrongdoing would be unignorable.

But if it comes down to a finer judgment, Democrats should heed their leaders’ instinct to wait for 2020 and the electoral showdown with Trump. Victory then would come at less civic cost. There is such a thing as statecraft.

This is un-American advice. “Rules-based order” has become the somewhat generous description of the world before 2016, but the phrase fits the US like a glove. It is a system of laws before it is a democracy. The cleanest way out of its populist fever just happens to be the other way around. Trump was an electoral proposition and must be confronted as such.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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