COMMENTARY: What if Democrats have to impeach the president?

COMMENTARY | Francis Wilkinson

Nancy Pelosi does not want to impeach President Donald Trump. The House Democratic leader, and likely next speaker of the House, has good reasons for avoiding that fight.

First, Republicans discredited impeachment when they used it to try to destroy President Bill Clinton for his White House misdeeds. The word “impeachment” used to conjure a righteous end to a crooked presidency. Now it connotes a rusty hatchet in the hand of Newt Gingrich.

Second, it’s going to be hard to shock Americans into thinking radical action — and impeachment is radical — is justified. Most Americans long ago came to understand that their president is not a fine person. For every American who says Trump is “trustworthy,” almost two say he isn’t. (And let’s face it: Some of those claiming to believe that Trump is trustworthy were probably MAGA partisans having fun at a pollster’s expense.)

Watergate was not the outcome that most Americans anticipated from Richard Nixon, who won the 1972 election in a glorious law ‘n’ order landslide. But the tawdry machinations of the Trump administration seem to be pretty much in line with expectations. In 2016, only one-third of Americans expected Trump to set a high moral standard in the White House.

Perhaps a few of the less attentive students needed more time for the lessons to sink in — just 27 percent now say Trump sets a high moral standard, so it’s fallen slightly in two years. But most Americans seem to recognize that the founder of Trump University has little use for laws and none for ethics. They won’t be shocked to have their perceptions confirmed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The political risks of impeachment, which include making Democrats look like so many Newts, are significant. The rewards of seeking to remove a tainted executive from office, especially when the Republican Senate will resist it, are dodgy at best. Instead, Democrats can use their new powers to highlight the most politically salient aspects of Trump’s corruption and incompetence without taking on the unique burdens of impeaching him. That seems like the easier way to go.

Unless Mueller makes the easy path hard.

Last month, the National Archives publicly released the “road map” of Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski. The road map isn’t a map at all. It’s a list of facts and evidence that Jaworski forwarded to the House of Representatives, where it was used as kindling for the fire that drove Nixon from Washington. As Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes wrote at the Lawfare blog:

The Road Map entirely lacks a thesis. It does not include any hypotheses about what might constitute an impeachable offense. It does not argue that Nixon committed any impeachable offense. It actually does not even argue that he committed any crimes. It simply makes a series of factual claims, each written in a spare and clinical fashion, each supported with citations to material the special prosecutor’s office provided to Congress.

The document, which is technically the work of a grand jury, may not specify that Nixon committed crimes. But its factual claims, backed by supporting evidence, powerfully lead to that conclusion.

When Pelosi was asked this month why she thought she could derail the efforts of liberals, such as donor and activist Tom Steyer, who are eager to see Trump impeached, she said that as a “San Francisco liberal” she has sufficient credibility among liberals to say “no.”

But what if Pelosi must answer to a higher authority than liberals?

It wasn’t Nixon’s liberal opponents or Jaworski or even Congress itself that turned Jaworski’s Watergate list into a road map for impeachment. It was the Constitution, which states that “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” are grounds for removing a president.

We don’t know exactly what Mueller has on Trump or what he will do with it. Much of what we do know, however, is hard to credit to a careful observance of the law, from the $130,000 that Trump paid to Stormy Daniels in a convoluted scheme to buy her silence to the Trump Tower meeting between top Trump campaign personnel and Russian operatives. Meanwhile, many (but surely not all) of Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation into his campaign, including his firing of James Comey as FBI director, are haplessly public.

Would any observer of Trump’s slapdash history, in politics as in business, be shocked if Mueller wrote a factual “road map” every bit as detailed and damning as the one Jaworski produced on Nixon?

And if Mueller does, then what? In that case, Pelosi and her allies may have to choose between the happy work of partisanship and the more fraught demands of constitutional obligations. Given the recalcitrance of Senate Republicans, who are highly skilled at rebuffing calls to conscience, Pelosi is unlikely to want to impeach Trump only to see the effort falter. But a full accounting from Mueller could make impeachment look less like bad politics, and more like grim duty.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.