Another day, another report of a high crime in the Trump White House.
The source was the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, a national treasure of modern journalism. In the middle of a deep dive into the dangerously symbiotic relationship between the Fox News Channel and the 45th president, Mayer dropped a bombshell: Trump had repeatedly pressured a then-top aide, Gary Cohn, on convincing the Justice Department to try to block the pending merger of AT&T with Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN, because POTUS was unhappy with CNN’s reporting on him.
"I’ve been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing’s happened!” Trump told his then-chief of staff John Kelly, according to the New Yorker. “I’ve mentioned it 50 times. And nothing’s happened. I want to make sure it’s filed. I want that deal blocked!” Although the story posits that Cohn and Kelly balked at making that call, the Trump Justice Department — contrary to its normal pro-big-corporation stance — did try, unsuccessfully, to prevent the merger in court, exactly as the president wished.
The Justice Department’s insistence that the president’s blind hatred of a network that he’s blasted as “fake news” on hundreds of occasions had nothing to do with its decision to intervene with AT&T and Time-Warner strains credulity. But even if that were the case, Trump’s demand for using the levers of the executive branch to squelch the 1st Amendment rights of journalists who report critically on his administration is the kind of stunning abuse of presidential power that motivated the Founding Fathers to insert an impeachment clause into the U.S. Constitution 232 years ago.
Ironically, Mayer’s big scoop dropped hours before the House Judiciary Committee — under the control of Democrats and a new chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, after 2018′s electoral “blue tsunami” — launched the most sweeping and comprehensive investigation of a sitting president since the 1974 impeachment inquiry into Richard Nixon (which did not end well for its subject, FYI.)
Two months after seizing power on Capitol Hill, House Democrats led by Nadler jolted Trumpland with a stunning blast of the kind of accountability that was notable for its absence during the two years that the GOP held an iron grip on the legislative branch. The Judiciary Committee demanded documents and other information from a whopping 81 different people or entities, a list so long that cable news had to scroll it across the screen at unreadable speed like the closing credits on a TV sit-com, the gaffers and key grips of an American scandal.
Many of the big names of Trump Present and Past were on the list, including sons Donald Jr. and Eric and son-in-law Jared Kushner, past insiders like Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer, Trumpists-turned-convicts Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, longtime Trump Organization insiders like Trump’s personal assistant Rhona Graff and finance guy Allen Weisselberg, as well as Trump’s presidential campaign and his inaugural committee. Even the National Rifle Association made the cut.
You want a side of Calamari? That’s on the Democrats’ menu, in the form of Matthew Calamari, the ex-bodyguard who wormed his way into Trump’s inner circle. Indeed, the list is so broad that it sent even close followers of the assorted Team Trump scandals to the Google machine to look up names like Keith Davidson (ex-lawyer for Stormy Daniels, the adult film story paid to keep silent about her fling with a future POTUS) or Tony Fabrizio (the pollster whose data was given by Manafort to a suspected Russian spy). Indeed, many Trump scandal completists spent more time Monday debating the names like Ivanka Trump and scandal figures like Elliott Broidy or Sam Patten which were surprisingly NOT on the list.
Amid that dose of shock and awe, the Democrats launched other fronts this week, all in the wake of the explosive nationally televised testimony of Trump’s ex-lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen. Three House committees — Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight — have launched an investigation of the president’s often bizarre dealings with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who acknowledged publicly he wanted Trump to win in 2016, led covert actions to help that happen, and now seems to be seeking payback.
The overlapping probes hold out the promise of the public finally realizing its right to know why their president acts like he’s in cahoots with Moscow, whether the NRA skirted the law in its massive aid for Trump’s election, the real reason why he doesn’t want America to see his income taxes, whether foreign powers tried to secretly buy influence through Trump’s inauguration, etc. Not surprising;y, the Trump White House immediately labelled this “a fishing expedition,” an argument meant to appeal to the sizable minority of Americans who refuse to see that the ocean of democracy is now teeming with sharks.
What’s fascinating — arguably revolutionary — about what happened on Monday is the one word the Democrats tried so hard to go out of their way to avoid uttering as their moonshot of a corruption probe blasted off.
“The i-word.” Impeachment.
“Our job is to protect the rule of law,” Nadler told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC Monday night, but he was clear that this current investigation is not an impeachment probe...at this time.
And yet, the Judiciary panel’s push for information is very much focused on high crimes or misdemeanors that may have been committed by the president or his inner circle. In other words, it looks exactly what the beginning of an impeachment investigation of Donald Trump would look like. The lightning strike of an idea here is the knowledge that you can start the lengthy process of gathering information now and still introduce articles of impeachment at a later date...if necessary.
I’d call this a “shadow impeachment,” or maybe The Impeachment That Dare Not Speak Its Name. In 1973-74, it took about nine months for that House Judiciary Committee chaired by New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino to go from a wave of impeachment bills — introduced after Nixon’s clear-cut abuse of power in "the Saturday Night Massacre — to public hearing to a vote to approve three articles. Nadler’s Monday maneuver creates a timetable when impeachment — if such a case is proven — could still happen in late 2019, before the first presidential primary and caucus votes are cast.
There are two basic scenarios here.
Scenario 1: The Mueller report — which is going to be issued (and hopefully released to the public) any day now...any day now — from the special counsel’s office lays out a case for criminality or serious abuses of presidential power by Trump. Or evidence from other sources — either from a raft of public hearings with key Trump-related witnesses in Congress beginning this spring, or from other prosecutors such as the feds in New York’s Southern District or the New York attorney general’s office — reveals high crimes and misdemeanors on a scale so broad that it would a constitutional crisis NOT to impeach. The Nadler probe could morph into impeachment hearings that could lead to a House vote in 2019 and a trial before the Iowa caucuses.
Scenario 2: The upcoming hearings before Judiciary and other House committees serve as a quasi-impeachment, without the actual impeachment. That could result from a finding that Trump’s misdeeds didn’t rise to a level that calls for his removal. But more likely it’s a political calculation — that with the 2020 presidential election so close at hand, the House investigations are essentially an information clearing house for the American voter. Congress can use its subpoena power to uncover the facts that the electorate should have had in 2016, but didn’t. This means the American people — not the politicians on Capitol Hill — will ultimately decide on removing Trump from the Oval Office, on November 3, 2020.
The idea behind Scenario 2 — which I suspect is more likely, especially given the historic caution of the present Democratic leadership, is that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that voters will do the right thing when they finally see Donald Trump’s taxes or learn how he ridiculously inflated his wealth to get loans from Deutsche Bank, or find out what’s really in that safe over at the National Enquirer, let alone the extent to which the president is indebted, one way or the other, to the Russians,
But the risk of that strategy are almost as great as the rewards. It makes the unproven assumption that a Democratic-led House will be able to keep Trump’s worst instincts, including his ability to start a war with a push of a button, in check for the next 22 months. Also, this notion assumes that the American people will act wisely upon the evidence that Congress produces.
That’s hardly a given. Consider this: Trump just had one of the worst weeks for an American president since August 1974, with a badly botched summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, his ex-lawyer exposing him as a racist conman cheat, and a bizarre two-hour speech that raised new questions about his fitness to serve. Yet his popularity, as measured by an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, actually spiked to a new high of 46 percent, the same number he got elected with on November 8, 2016.
On the same day that the House singled out the Gang of 81, the New York Times did what it seems to do best, and let a gaggle of those so-satisfied Trump voters in western Pennsylvania sound off. As always, the voters of Trumpland are stickin'. People in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs told the Times they’re just not ready for a woman president, or that they blame any Democrat for overly generous welfare, or that Trump is cleaning up the always-mentioned-but-never-defined “mess” of Barack Obama. It was clear that no scandal would ever rob these voters of the 10-ton resentments they will lug back to the polls in 2020..