After the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Democrats have been debating whether or not to bring impeachment proceedings against President Trump. If begun, impeachment could succeed in the House, but conviction and removal from office would almost certainly fail in the Senate along partisan lines. The question is whether such a result would express (1) a commitment to the rule of law in the face of a president and his partisan supporters who subordinate it to political advantage or (2) the determination of partisan opponents to repudiate a president whom they never accepted in the first place.
These two possibilities are not equally weighted. The concerns raised by the report’s description of a president whose determination to interfere in an investigation was thwarted by his staff’s refusal to comply with his instructions are too serious to be dismissed as a “witch hunt,” even if some partisan motivations are in evidence. But noting the two extremes of interpretation also raises a question even more pressing than impeachment: Who will call the president to account? Who can demand that he acknowledge and take responsibility for his ethical lapses? If impeachment and removal is the only mechanism to do so—a mechanism doomed to stall because of partisanship —then the United States already has a problem that impeachment cannot solve.
Who will call the president to account? Who can demand that he acknowledge and take responsibility for his ethical lapses?
This is a joint crisis of accountability and credibility. Many Republican politicians have abandoned their duty to criticize Mr. Trump’s repeated violations of political and civic norms while expressing a vague discomfort with his behavior. Senator Mitt Romney has offered the strongest response thus far from any national G.O.P. official, describing himself as “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty” from Mr. Trump. Yet he opened the same statement by saying that since the report clears the president of the charge of having conspired in Russian election interference, “the business of government can move on.” He thereby joins his less-sickened colleagues in absolving themselves of the need to inquire any further into Mr. Trump’s willingness to obstruct justice.
On the other hand, in the eyes of many of Mr. Trump’s supporters, Democrats cannot credibly question the president’s motives or actions because they are only using the special counsel’s report to vindicate their pre-judgment of the president as unfit for office. This credibility gap cannot be closed by more fervent opposition to the president. While necessary, congressional hearings and further exploration of Mr. Trump’s misuse of his office are likely to be similarly dismissed.
The Republican commentator Charlie Sykes wrote that the Mueller report “suggests any judgment about Trump’s motives should be ‘informed by the totality of the evidence.’ The totality of evidence is damning.” This is the kind of response we need to hear from elected Republicans as well. Democrats should prioritize recruiting more Republicans to join and lead the effort to investigate and criticize President Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation of Russian interference and his ongoing disregard for constitutional checks and balances. If those Republicans cannot be found and the party continues to back Mr. Trump for political advantage regardless of ethical cost, then impeachment will be insufficient, and the United States faces a problem that must be resolved at the ballot box.