Something is happening that’s never happened before: the world’s two oldest democracies, Britain and the United States, are simultaneously experiencing constitutional crises they haven’t faced in a long time.
In London, the British Supreme Court — an institution only 10 years old, and fashioned primarily as a body to deal with rulings by the European Union — was forced into a political dogfight when Prime Minister Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament as soon as it convened. This was ostensibly to prepare the session’s legislative agenda but, as universally understood, actually meant to preempt debate about Britain’s controversial exit from the European Union. Essentially, the argument was about whether Johnson was lying about his purposes in ordering the prorogation, and whether he had lied to Queen Elizabeth in securing her approval for it. This was not, then, truly a legal case, but a political one. The Court, in holding the prorogation unlawful and hence void, acknowledged this in saying that its ruling should not be taken for a precedent since the circumstances were unlikely to recur. As I pointed out in my article of last week, that was precisely what had happened, since a prorogation challenged as unlawful in Parliament had occurred in the early seventeenth century and it took the bloodiest war ever fought on British soil to resolve it. At the moment, it is not at all clear where Britain’s current crisis will take it.
Meanwhile, the evolving drama over Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into reinvestigating Joe Biden’s dealings there during his second vice presidential term has resulted in impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. This is a development that could one could not have foreseen a few weeks ago, and yet in retrospect seems inevitable. More than half the House Democratic caucus had already come out in favor of impeaching Trump on charges so numerous — serial violations of the law and of his oath of office; brazen self-enrichment; incitement to racial hatred and violence; abuses of power ranging from illicit manipulation of tariffs to diversion of public funds to putting children torn from their parents in cages — that one was spoiled for choice. The problem with these accusations, however, was that they were all factually or interpretively disputable. There was, in short, no legally smoking gun.
That gun was supplied when a CIA whistleblower accused Trump of having personally shaken down the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, by phone for material that could compromise Biden’s own bid for the White House. When, under pressure, Trump released a preliminary transcript of his conversation with Zelensky, the text substantially bore out the accusation. The added fact that Trump’s own staffers had attempted to conceal it by placing it on a classified server suggested an attempted cover-up as well. Politically, this was the equivalent of Watergate: an effort to discredit political opponents on behalf of the president followed by an attempt to suppress the evidence. This time, however, the president himself was directly and immediately implicated: the phone call was Trump’s own.
Trump, as a candidate for president, had openly solicited damning information about Hillary Clinton from Russian intelligence. As recently as June 13 of this year, he stated that he remained open to any source, including foreign agencies, that could provide dirt on an opponent. This is statutorily and constitutionally illegal. Moreover, the statement had been made in the aftermath of the Mueller Report, which identified foreign interference in our elections as the greatest threat to American democracy, a point repeated publicly by Robert Mueller himself in his testimony to Congress July 24. Trump’s conversation with Zelensky had occurred the very next day.
This wasn’t just a smoking gun hastily hidden. It was a smoking gun found in the President’s own hand.
After Trump himself — and perhaps even ahead of him, since he seemed not to have recognized the significance of his own action — the person most dismayed by the whistleblower’s revelation was Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi had fought for months to deflect impeachment proceedings against Trump, despite rising pressure in her House Democratic caucus and calls for it by prominent figures such as Elizabeth Warren, at this point Biden’s chief presidential rival. There’s no question that Pelosi considered Trump worthy of impeachment, as House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler said. Nor was her personal contempt for him any secret. But Pelosi felt that impeachment, all but certain to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate, risked potentially fatal damage to the Democrats’ chances across the board in the 2020 elections. It would undoubtedly be divisive; it would certainly be construed as partisan; it would energize Trump’s political base. Above all, it would still leave him in office.
What Pelosi realized, however, was that the Zelensky call made it impossible for the Democrats not to impeach Trump, and that, as the Party’s de facto leader, she had to get in front of the fact as quickly as possible. Even so, she labeled this as an “inquiry” into whether articles of impeachment should be drawn up, rather than a proceeding based on the assumption that they would be. She also made it clear that there would be no formal vote in the House to authorize such an inquiry, which deprived House Republicans of the opportunity to contest it.
This means impeachment will now result, for if it did not do so the Democrats would be conceding that none of Trump’s conduct as president was sufficiently offensive to require his removal from office. That, at this point, would be crushing to them. It would also be crushing to any constitutional restraint on the office of the presidency.
“If the president does it, it’s not illegal,” Richard Nixon once famously said, and Trump has said that the Constitution permits the president to do whatever he wants. Once the process of impeachment is undertaken, failing to hold Trump accountable for what he has done would make it immensely more difficult to restrain him or any successor from abuse of power. We’d still have a country. It just wouldn’t be ours.
The next several weeks or months will thus be among the most politically important of our lifetimes. Pelosi, stuck with the last job in the world she wanted, must do it supremely well, coordinating the committees that will produce the articles of impeachment and taking the high road of patriotism. Trump will accuse the Democrats of partisanship every day, not to say treason, an epithet he has already hurled at the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
We learned, after the fact, how close Nixon came to privately unraveling in the White House as he confronted impeachment. Trump is coming apart in public, and that is far more dangerous. Republicans, no less than Democrats, will soon be facing their moment of truth. Events may drag on through 2020, and their repercussions will certainly be felt long after. They could also come to a head very quickly. We have dealt with impeaching presidents before. But we have never dealt with a Donald Trump.