Given the intricate web of stupid that is Russiagate, the Comey firing, and, well, about a dozen other potentially illegal things Donald Trump has done in his brief tenure as president, impeachment has become a real possibility and not just a desperate fantasy of the left. If we’re to be honest, the only thing standing between the president and impeachment is the fickle calculation of whether or not congressional Republicans possess the human quality of shame. But there’s another line of thought propagated by the left worth consideration too: why bother impeaching Trump if Mike Pence is worse?
Don’t impeach Trump, the reasoning goes, because Trump is an idiot. He will botch every awful thing the Republicans want to do, while Pence may prove effective. Whatever Pence is, he’s not a bumbling, incoherent, ideologically inconsistent moron. He’s a true believer, who may, with the assistance of the dastardly Speaker Paul Ryan, prove shrewd enough to pass abominable legislation like the American Health Care Act, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and defund Planned Parenthood. Pence is even more dangerous, we are warned.
It’s difficult to understate what a discomfiting, ill-conceived argument this is, one that should be shot down every time it arises. Because it doesn’t matter if the bastard child of Ann Coulter and Pepe the Frog is second in line to the presidency behind Trump—if we’re being honest, those two aren’t exactly an inconceivable 2024 Republican ticket either.
We are either a country that believes in the rule of law or we are not.
There’s too much history of the presidency and its skirmishes with the rule of law to go into here, but let’s focus on the last two administrations. George W. Bush flagrantly violated enough domestic and international law to likely get impeached five times over. From his initial secret domestic surveillance program to the widespread use of torture, Bush and his administration flouted any number of legal constraints and were never held accountable. Barack Obama chose not to expend political capital to litigate anything done by Bush or his cronies. Perhaps this is understandable, and perhaps Obama was able to deliver health care reform and Dodd-Frank and the stimulus because of this decision. But when the rule of law becomes a la carte, when every 16-year-old kid who’s ever been in the same time zone as an illegal narcotic goes to prison but people who commit serious misdeeds that degrade the state’s legitimacy are impervious to prosecution, it emboldens the next set of rulers to treat laws and norms and all other constraints as the laughable paper handcuffs of suckers.
Speaking of Barack Obama and the rule of law, though many a bullshit scandal was concocted around his presidency (Solyndra, Fast and Furious), many people on both the left and right were deeply troubled by his aggressive use of drones and special forces to assassinate, without oversight, basically anybody deemed a threat in any country where al-Qaeda or an affiliated group operated. The assassination of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, should have triggered a tidal wave of journalistic and congressional investigation. Instead, Obama made a point to brag about it leading up to his 2012 campaign. The Obama Justice Department fought the release of the memo justifying the strike against al-Awlaki, and when the ACLU finally managed to get it released to the public, there were still a number of questions, such as—and surely this is important to know—how does any given American citizen end up on an extrajudicial “kill list”? Who’s making that decision? How much anti-American rhetoric can one engage in before he or she is considered “kill list” material? No matter, Obama’s defenders said to whoever questioned the radical new war powers of the presidency, this power is safe in Obama’s wise hands.
But those hands sure changed, didn’t they?
The rule of law, these implacable restraints on whoever holds power, matter far more than our ideological commitments. My guess is that Donald Trump has broken the law in so many alarming ways, there won’t be enough space on the bill of impeachment for all of it. Only the desperate Right and the this-doesn’t-conform-to-our-narrative-it-was-Hillary’s-fault Left can possibly keep denying that the Trump campaign likely colluded with Russia. Not to mention, he pretty clearly tried to obstruct the investigation. Oh, and he’s definitely been using the office to enrich himself and his family since the day he entered. If and when investigations produce evidence of these crimes, he should be impeached because people who flagrantly break the law shouldn’t be president.
It doesn’t matter that Mike Pence is a basically a Commander from The Handmaid’s Tale come to life. He should be held to the same standard as Trump, and if he broke or breaks the law, citizens should push for his impeachment as well. No, you say, because Paul Ryan is next! And he’s as Machiavellian an operator for the 1% as has ever existed! Doesn’t matter. We cannot have a situation where, as original Republican scofflaw Richard Nixon put it, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” But also, impeachment should not be used as a tool to tactically arrive at a preferable political situation, as the Republicans tried with Bill Clinton. (Actually, here’s a fun game: see how many people would have to be impeached in the current regime until you get to someone who’s not a frightening right-wing ideologue).
For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a given that Pence is some kind of savvy operator. He’s bloodless, demonstrably craven, and has none of the surreal, bizzaro-world “charm” of Trump. His presidency could be lame duck before he takes the oath.
Perhaps it’s also important to here address the 25th Amendment solution, which seems even more improbable than impeachment. As Dalia Lithwick points out, the people tasked with removing Trump are also narcissistic, intellectually fragile multi-millionaires and billionaires, who likely don’t see any of this as much of a problem. Rex Tillerson and Betsy DeVos have spent their whole lives trying to rewrite American law for their own benefit. The cabinet is an unelected body and therefore even less responsive to the pressure of public will than gerrymandered congressional Republicans.
Nevertheless, if Trump’s removal were to happen this way, I would support it. There are many arguments floating around that this has the taint of a palace coup, that it’s an un-democratic solution. However, if it comes down to the question of whether or not the president is capable of discharging the duties of his office, the answer seems like a resounding No. Whether it’s boasting about highly classified intelligence to the Russians or the fact that intelligence agencies have to slip his name into briefings to get him to read, the man clearly does not have the basic intellectual capacity to do the job. Congress should exercise it’s authority and draw up articles of impeachment but, failing that, something must be done.
Donald Trump remains a singularly unqualified, ignorant, erratic, and dangerous individual, and not just because of the most obvious reasons, such as that there are basically no safeguards to keep him from launching a nuclear first strike (though, there are not). He is a hell-bent authoritarian, and even if his hapless dicks-for-hands idiocy seems consistently reassuring, the American people and our representatives should not underestimate how dangerous this man is.
If Trump manages to install a lackey as director of the FBI he will quickly transform the agency into his own private Stasi. He will use it to harass and intimidate political opponents, journalists, and civil society opposition. I have no doubt about that. It’s what he was very clearly asking of James Comey. If there is a large terrorist attack, he will try to use that incident to expand his power, to suspend civil liberties, and the Republican Party is just spineless enough that under the right circumstances they might forget who they’re dealing with and grant him those powers. Perhaps the same could happen in a Pence presidency, but they are virtually guaranteed in Trump’s.
The only prediction I’ll make: if this man is not removed from office soon, something terrible is going to happen. Something for which our imaginations have not yet prepared us.
One final point: these brief months of Trump have exposed a startling number of weaknesses, flaws, and dangerous incentives in our political system. Few of these flaws were imagined when the constitution was written. They are advents of the era of the imperial presidency, endless militarism, and our sprawling security state, which have suddenly been brought to light by this unreconstructed right-wing wannabe tyrant. Make no mistake, however Trump’s end comes (if it comes), the world will never be the same. People of every political stripe must invest the capital in changing our laws to guard against this situation. We must assume, as the founders did, that human nature redounds to greed, abuse, tribalism, and cruelty, and restructure the office of the president so that the next Trump—who may be more wily, more inventive, more cunning—cannot reduce what’s left of our democracy to ashes. If anything good is to come out of this national nightmare, let it be that.