Asked about the Mueller report on a popular daytime talk show, Senator Elizabeth Warren recently observed that if Donald Trump “were anyone other than the President of the United States, he would be in handcuffs and indicted … I didn’t take an oath to support [him] I took an oath to support the Constitution. So impeachment it is.”
Warren is the most prominent 2020 Democratic candidate to name the elephant in the room. Others have shied away from impeachment, fearing that it may fire up the Republican base. Conversely, inaction on Mueller’s evidence that the president attempted to obstruct justice has left Democrats looking indecisive and ill-prepared to challenge Trump in the forthcoming election.
Mueller has been clear that Congress should decide what happens next. Reiterating that the indictment of a sitting president exceeded the scope of his powers, Mueller nevertheless left little doubt about what should happen next. At a press conference earlier this week, he pointedly observed that: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” He also closed his prepared remarks by noting that: “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election … [and] that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
Mueller’s statement undercut Attorney General William Barr’s previous assertions that Trump had not engaged in “obstructive conduct.” Leaving little room for misinterpretation, Mueller noted that: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” In other words, if Congress doesn’t insist on accountability, the system will have failed.
Impeachment may turn out to be more useful as a process than an end in itself. Although the Democrats have enough support to initiate proceedings in Congress, it will likely fail in the Republican-controlled Senate. But the many embarrassments which would emerge from closer scrutiny of the president’s finances might well be enough be to undermine his chances of reelection. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that tax data for Trump’s businesses showed that he had lost US $1.17 billion over a decade, an individual loss that appears to be “more than nearly any other individual American taxpayer.” In fact, losses from his core businesses in 1990 and 1991 “more than $250 million each year — were more than double those of the nearest taxpayers in the I.R.S. information for those years.”
The US Congress has now reached a crisis point with respect to the Trump presidency. It either accepts the president’s long history of bending roles and institutions to serve his private ends, or takes Mueller’s cue to hold him accountable. Trump’s capacity for self-indulgence at taxpayers’ expense is extraordinary. This month the Huffington Post reported that his golf trips alone have totalled more than US$100 million in extra travel and security expenses. Trump’s disregard for norms has been a defining characteristic of his presidency, but there is now a US$40 million investigation – which also indicted dozens of Trump’s associates – urgently prompting further action before next year’s election.