This piece originally ran in the New York Times opinion section on October 18, 2019.
“I think the American people are going to have a chance to decide this at the ballot box in November 2020,” Beto O’Rourke said in March, neatly expressing prevailing Democratic opinion on the question of impeaching President Trump, “and perhaps that’s the best way for us to resolve these outstanding questions.”
This is no longer a tenable position. The president’s bungled bid to coerce Ukraine’s leader into helping the Trump 2020 re-election campaign smear a rival struck “decide it at the ballot box” off the menu of reasonable opinion forever. Mr. Trump’s brazen attempt to cheat his way into a second term stands so scandalously exposed that there can be no assurance of a fair election if he’s allowed to stay in office. Resolving the question of the president’s fitness at the ballot box isn’t really an option, much less the best option, when the question boils down to whether the ballot box will be stuffed.
Impeachment is therefore imperative, not only to protect the integrity of next year’s elections but to secure America’s continued democratic existence. If the House does its job, it will fall to Senate Republicans to reveal, in their decision to convict (or not), their preferred flavor of republic: constitutional or banana.
Mike Murphy, a Republican election consultant, recently remarked that “one Republican senator told me if it was a secret vote, 30 Republican senators would vote to impeach Trump.” Everyone understands that Mr. Trump is wildly popular with conservative voters, and that Senate Republicans would rather not invite primary challengers by alienating them. But when the legitimacy and preservation of our democracy are at stake, striving to keep a Senate seat safe through craven betrayal of the American people could come at a catastrophic price to the country.
It is now impossible to deny that Mr. Trump pressed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig up dirt on Joe Biden while holding up congressionally appropriated military assistance intended to help Ukraine stave off Russian aggression. Mr. Trump loudly admitted it, and the summary of his July phone conversation with Mr. Zelensky and the whistle-blower report cast it in the worst possible light. If Mr. Trump’s willing to cop to this, all while promoting an Infowars-level conspiracy theory to justify it, the American public can reasonably suspect that he’s abusing the powers of his office in other ways to fix the election in his favor.
Mr. Trump has supplied American voters with overwhelming reason to doubt that any election he participates in can be fair. That’s why he can’t be allowed to run for any public office, much less the presidency, ever again.
The president’s infamous call with Mr. Zelensky took place the day after the special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress about his inquiry into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia and Russian interference in the 2016 election. If Mr. Trump was elated that the testimony failed to unleash immediate impeachment hearings, he was also unnerved by the prospect of facing an indictment at the end of his time in office. The president knows he’s beyond the reach of criminal prosecution only so long as he commands the awesome powers of the executive branch.
The content of the “favors” Mr. Trump asked of the Ukrainian president underscore his feral resolve to barricade himself inside the Oval Office for at leastfive more years. His purpose in pressuring Mr. Zelensky to inquire into the Ukrainian whereabouts of an imaginary server and to beat the bushes for evidence of corruption involving Mr. Biden’s family was to drum up “evidence” that Russian election interference and his role in abetting it was nothing but a frame job fabricated by Ukrainians, in cahoots with the Democratic Party, to throw the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton.
It can be hard to grasp the point of all this. The point is that Mr. Trump is a great patriot who did nothing wrong, while the Democrat he views as the biggest threat to his continuing legal immunity is an illegitimate traitor. You see, if Mr. Mueller’s entire investigation was nothing but the continuation of a fabulously intricate conspiracy theory meant to undermine America’s democratic sovereignty, then Mr. Trump had to obstruct it to defend the republic. If Joe Biden was centrally involved in it, then he’s the corrupt threat to democracy. It’s a paranoid piece of fiction that would make Thomas Pynchon, or Vladimir Putin, proud.
This is the lunacy behind Mr. Trump’s willingness to casually endanger Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russia. Worse, by ordering the attorney general, the secretary of state and his personal fixer to lend counterfeit substance to this ridiculous effort, he has untethered American diplomacy and law enforcement from reality.
If the House goes through with impeachment but the Senate acquits, Mr. Trump’s lawlessness will have been lavishly rewarded. He will take it as a signal that absolutely anything goes — especially given the Senate’s failure to act in any meaningful way on election security. Should he win, a sizable majority of the public will see it as an electoral coup and deny the validity of his claim to power. It’s easy to imagine enormous mass protests that bring Washington to a halt, dangerous indeterminacy in the continuity of government, and worse.
If Senate Republicans hold their majority through an election that stinks of corruption, they’ll be dogged by the same crisis of legitimacy. If they nevertheless go on to use their dubious authority to continue stacking the courts and shielding the president from accountability, Americans won’t be wrong to conclude that our democracy has crumbled and that the United States has devolved into one of the world’s many soft-authoritarian kleptocracies claiming popular legitimacy from behind a cheap veneer of rigged elections. It can definitely happen here.
Senate Republicans who would vote in secret to remove Mr. Trump need to finally come to the defense of their country and do it in public. The odds of Republicans holding the Senate in a clean race are strong. But senators who choose to ignore the duties of their office in order to protect Mr. Trump will communicate with ringing clarity that they don’t care about having a fair election; that they don’t care whether the American people have really granted them the authority to govern; and that they think their own voters don’t care about any of this, either.
But the American people, Democrats and Republicans alike, do care. The fainthearted lions of the Senate ought to bear in mind that a defiant citizenry inflamed by indignation and jealous of its rights can overwhelm a corrupt regime’s dirty electoral plans. An election with an impeached Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket is an invitation to an electoral uprising that should haunt Mitch McConnell’s dreams.
Senate Republicans owe us the courage of their private convictions. If they can’t find it, they should at least be wary of assuming that cultlike devotion to the president will allow them to weather the coming storm, or that, in the end, they will be rewarded for a faithless calculation to regard their constituents with contempt.