June 03, 2020
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Impeachment process calls for caution, not political calculation

Jon Elswick | AP
Jon Elswick | AP
A letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone is photographed in Washington, on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The White House declared it will not cooperate with what it termed the "illegitimate" impeachment probe by House Democrats, sharpening the constitutional clash between President Donald Trump and Congress. Trump attorneys sent a letter to House leaders bluntly stating their refusal to participate in the quickly moving impeachment investigation.

Impeachment may be a political process conducted by politicians, but it is not and should not be a popularity contest. That’s what elections are for.

Polling about the current impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump misused his office for personal political gain in relations with Ukraine does provide important insight into voters perceptions of and appetite for this divisive conversation. Regardless of fluctuations in public opinion, however, legislators making a decision on impeachment should be guided by the facts of the investigation.

Their vote, if it reaches that point, should not hinge on public support for the idea of impeachment proceedings, which some polls have recently found is growing — or how popular Trump is in a congressman’s district or a senator’s home state. What matters is whether the evidence points to the president committing an impeachable offense, or not.

Fact finding in situations of this magnitude and complexity, inconvenient for the news cycle as it may be, takes time. So please forgive us if we don’t get outraged about members of Congress who are withholding their outrage at this point in the process. Our country has reached a historic moment that will test the durability of our democratic values, as America and the world face an eroding regard for truth and a growing preference for self-reaffirming spin. We should want caution and careful consideration from our elected representatives at such a time.

Are Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Jared Golden motivated in part by the political realities of an upcoming election year as they each decline to take a firm position right now on the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats? Probably. After all, they’re politicians. But the caution they are displaying has value, even if it rankles both political opponents and allies alike.

“There are people who are clearly for an impeachment inquiry; there are people who are clearly against it, and then there’s this small group of people like myself who have said that we need to treat this with the somberness and the seriousness that the matter requires,” Golden said in an Oct. 2 radio interview on WVOM.

Collins has cited the Senate’s constitutional role in impeachment as a reason to withhold comment on the “merits” of the House inquiry. Her staff has pointed to a Washington Post story about the Clinton Impeachment trial in 1999, in which Collins displayed a similar deference to the process over comments to the press.

“The House has announced that it will formally initiate an impeachment inquiry and, as a result, the Senate could be called upon to have an impeachment trial. The Constitutional role of a Senator during an impeachment trial includes serving as a juror,” Collins said in a statement after the House inquiry was announced in late September. “As such, at this point, it is not appropriate for a Senator to comment on the merits of the House inquiry or to prejudge its outcome. Therefore, I will not be commenting on the House proceedings.”

Neither approach wins many fans from the camps that have already decided that the inquiry is a Democratic witch hunt or that Trump should undoubtedly be impeached. But for those of us who are both troubled by the undisputed fact that the president encouraged Ukraine (and now, China) to investigate a political rival, and who still have questions about Trump’s intent and the line between investigating potential corruption and investigating a potential opponent, these are responsible places for both Collins and Golden to be right now. They won’t be able to stay there forever, though.

That does not mean either has been silent. Collins has pushed back against Trump’s “gross mischaracterization” of whistleblowers potentially being spies, and called his suggestion that China investigate Joe Biden and Biden’s son “ completely inappropriate.” Golden said on WVOM that “putting impeachment inquiry out there first was putting the cart before the horse” but that the House still needs to “stay focused on the fact finding mission.”

Golden has also emphasized the importance of understanding Trump’s intent in his call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“For me, that’s the most important issue at stake,” Golden said last week. “Did the president put his personal gain above the best interest of the country, or did he in fact believe that this was what he should be doing?”

We’re most interested in the facts of the investigation, not the polls or the political calculations, and our elected representatives should be, too. A little caution can go a long way here.

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