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Answers to the Impeachment Question at the Democratic Debate

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The worst answer on the question of what it would mean to impeach President Donald Trump—which was posed, in some form, to all twelve contenders in the Democratic Presidential debate on Tuesday night, in Ohio—came from Senator Kamala Harris, of California. “The reality of it is that I don’t really think this impeachment process is going to take very long, because, as a former prosecutor, I know a confession when I see it!” Harris, who served as California’s attorney general, said. “And he did it in plain sight. He has given us the evidence, and he tried to cover it up, putting it in that special server”—this was a reference to the repository where people on the White House staff had moved the record of what Trump said in a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, of Ukraine. Harris, gesturing with both hands for emphasis, repeated, “This will not take very long.”

Won’t it? An impeachment may now be necessary; all twelve of the candidates said that they thought so. (My colleague Eric Lach wrote about that consensus.) But it does voters no favors to pretend that it will be easy, or anything less than a bitter slog. Perhaps by “impeachment process” Harris meant only the vote on the articles of impeachment, the rough equivalent of an indictment, in the House, where the Democrats have a majority, rather than the trial in the Senate, where the Republicans have a majority and where the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, will have a fair amount of control over the timing. (Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, noted that qualification, saying, “I look forward, by the way, not only to a speedy and expeditious impeachment process but Mitch McConnell has got to do the right thing and allow a free and fair trial in the Senate.”) But even in a Democratic House, things will get a little more complicated and less obvious-seeming than on a panel of like-minded Democrats. The proceedings will be contentious; most congressional Republicans are backing up the President, and many will see the hearings as a chance to get Trump’s attention and that of the voters who are important to them. Conviction and removal in the Senate requires sixty-seven votes. In theory, the Republicans might eventually turn on him, but they are not nearly there yet; Democrats certainly can’t bank on it. One would think that Harris, as a former prosecutor, would remember that the opening statement of one side is just that—an opening.

Later in the debate, Harris’s position on impeachment appeared even more confounding. The subject was large tech companies, and the Senator complained that Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, wasn’t joining her in demanding that Twitter ban the President from the platform, “Because here we have Donald Trump, who has sixty-five million Twitter followers and is using that platform as the President of the United States to openly intimidate witnesses, to threaten witnesses, to obstruct justice, and he and his account should be taken down.” So will Trump’s tendency to openly tout his dubious actions make the process go quickly? Or will the attempts at intimidation and obstruction—including the Administration’s defiance of subpoenas, which may eventually end at the Supreme Court—make impeachment a tough but all the more necessary fight? More fundamentally, Harris’s call to get Trump, who uses his account for official statements, off of Twitter runs up against the benefit to Americans of knowing what their government is saying, before one even gets to the question of free speech. (Trump is still the President, and that makes the issue more complicated than simply kicking someone off the platform for unsavory tweeting behavior—indeed, civil libertarians have litigated, successfully, to stop him from blocking people who follow him, citing the right to address government officials.) Harris’s Twitter comments also carry the suggestion that if Trump is not tweeting he will essentially vanish—as if Twitter were reality, and as if “he and his account” could be taken down in one swoop.

Again, no one on the stage was against impeachment; Senator Warren said that reading the Mueller report had persuaded her; Senator Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, emphasized the threat that Trump’s actions posed to elections going forward. But the candidates varied in their sense of where the process might lead. Andrew Yang was, in some ways, the most grounded—as is often the case with him, on topics that can seem to range far from his essential argument for a universal basic income. “I support impeachment, but we shouldn’t have any illusions that impeaching Donald Trump will, one, be successful or, two, erase the problems that got him elected in 2016.” Turning to the audience, Yang said, “Why did Donald Trump win your state by eight points? Because we got rid of three hundred thousand manufacturing jobs in your towns.” That last answer may be far narrower than it ought to be, but Yang’s question was a good one. Similarly, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, noted that “everyone on this stage, by definition, is competing to be a President for after the Trump Presidency.” He asked everyone to picture the moment: “It starts out feeling like a happy thought—this particular brand of chaos and corruption will be over. But really think about where we’ll be: vulnerable, even more torn apart by politics than we are right now. And these big issues from the economy to climate change have not taken a vacation during the impeachment process.” The country, he said, will be “dangerously polarized” and will need to heal.

Another elision in the discussion of impeachment during the debate concerned the role of Hunter Biden, the son of the former Vice-President Joe Biden. Trump, in his call with Zelensky, was apparently trying to turn Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine into campaign dirt. Joe Biden, who said in his answer to the impeachment question that the House has “no choice” but to move forward, brushed aside a subsequent question from Anderson Cooper, of CNN, about his son’s business by saying, “Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong.” Pressed for details—Hunter had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit on the board of a Ukrainian gas company—Biden added, “My son’s statement speaks for itself.” This was a reference to a fairly garbled interview that Hunter gave to ABC News, in which he admitted to poor judgement but not to real regrets, saying, in effect, that it wouldn’t have been a problem if not for Rudy Giuliani, the President’s lawyer. The other Democrats, during the debate, at least, seemed to accept this. Later in the debate, Senator Cory Booker, of New Jersey, objected to the very fact that the moderators had asked Biden about his son: “We are literally using Donald Trump’s lies. And the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman. That was so offensive.” But it would have seemed to most voters, particularly those in the middle, a great omission if the moderators—who represented CNN and the Times, not the Democratic Party—had failed to even ask Biden about the background of the story. There should be a more compelling, or comprehensive, answer.

At another moment, Harris seemed to treat impeachment almost as metaphor, saying, “When I think about where we are right now, in 2020 I do believe justice is on the ballot. It’s on the ballot in terms of impeachment, it’s on the ballot in terms of economic justice, health justice, and so many other issues.” Was she suggesting that impeachment is less a legal set of actions and more a declaration of faith in justice and accountability? If so, that is, indeed, a reasonable position, and one that many Democrats will likely share. But the word “impeachment” will not be on the ballot: the name of a Democrat will be, and so will the name of a Republican. There’s just over a year until the election; the months may go by very fast.



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Thanks !

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