What next? The substance of the Mueller report is only now beginning to penetrate through the fog of lies and distortions coming from Attorney General William Barr, backed by his loyal lieutenant, Rod Rosenstein. Even the redacted version makes visible the despicable behavior that emanated from the Trump campaign and the Trump White House, not to mention Donald Trump himself, and the shocking penetration of Russia into our elections—with no visible response then or now from Republicans in power. But most Americans will not read or even get the gist of the Mueller report, or know much of what is in it, as they lead their own lives largely unfocused on politics and government.
So what should Democrats do? There is ample evidence of behavior on the part of the president that fits any reasonable definition of high crimes and misdemeanors—and most likely there will be a lot more when the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and other jurisdictions of the Justice Department finish their work—at least if Barr does not stymie them. The House has a constitutional responsibility to follow up.
But a formal impeachment inquiry in the House Judiciary Committee would be politically perilous—and while politics cannot override duty, Democrats cannot risk the kind of 2020 backlash that would come if a large share of the voting public came to see the House as Javert-like, abandoning its focus on health care, jobs, and the other issues that dominate most Americans’ lives in a monomaniacal quest to get Trump. A quick move to impeachment would be used by Trump and his acolytes, from the Senate to Fox and talk radio, to incite and outrage the GOP base.
That said, a failure to act, to do anything meaningful to bring this president and his gang of corrupt miscreants to heel, would rightfully enrage most liberal voters. Remember that the rage Republican-primary voters felt at their party establishment in 2016, over broken promises to bring Barack Obama to his knees, led to the nomination of Trump. A parallel rage among Democrats could lead to a deeply divided party and a disastrous presidential nomination.
There is, I believe, a reasonable path forward that, besides being politically palatable, has the added advantage of being the right thing to do. It starts with a coordinated and in-depth examination of the Mueller report by the House.
What we need is for the Judiciary, Intelligence, and Homeland Security Committees to conduct a series of deep dives into the areas of communication and coordination between Trump and his campaign with Russians and their surrogates, such as WikiLeaks; the multiple categories and areas of obstruction of justice that Robert Mueller outlined; the threats to our intelligence operations and our justice system from Trump and his operatives; and the moves by Russia to interfere in and influence our elections used by Trump and unchecked by Republicans. Other committees, such as Ways and Means and Banking, need to be ready to do the same thing as more information emerges from the SDNY and the New York attorney general, among others, about Trump’s financial dealings, including with the Russians, and about Russian money laundering. The witnesses need to include Mueller and Rosenstein, of course, but also the range of figures mentioned in the report, and also a range of experts in areas such as ethics, constitutional violations, intelligence operations, and election administration and security.
Democrats need to stage and coordinate hearings across committees and subcommittees, to make sure they do not overload Americans’ ability to pay attention. Most important, they need to structure the public hearings in a dramatically different way than usual. Each committee needs to use experienced counsel—a good example might be former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara—and limit, if not abandon, opening statements, except from the chairs. No five-minute rounds of questions going down the line of every committee member, leading to utterly disjointed discourse, making it easy for hostile witnesses to evade, filibuster, or otherwise avoid follow-ups and get through a five minute period, which is then followed by a five-minute breather with an ally on the Republican side, and then another five minutes from the next member of the panel that may have nothing to do with the previous round of questions.
Give the counsel an hour to set the frame and ask in-depth questions. Either follow that with another round for the counsel or have a small group of committee members take 15 or 30 minutes to ask questions in a sustained way, with coordinated themes. This system might cause hard feelings among members who will not get their five minutes in the sun—and would reduce the public role for chairs—but it is better suited to accomplish the larger goal. And that larger goal is to build a compelling record, through vivid testimony, of what Trump and his people, including his children, did and did not do, said and did not say truthfully, that is the core of Mueller’s report.
That kind of forum should be supplemented by another. Committees should do a series of roundtables, discussions with leading experts with deep experience in the Justice Department, including the FBI, in the White House, in the intelligence world, and elsewhere, to discuss in-depth whether the behaviors they have seen in the Trump administration are typical or unusual, acceptable or unacceptable. Many of the people who would be useful to this project are familiar figures on television—Chuck Rosenberg, Mimi Rocah, Asha Rangappa, Ron Klain, John McLaughlin, Mike Hayden, Leon Panetta, John Brennan. There are others, including many who have served in Republican administrations, to add to the list.
All of this is, in my view, a necessary predicate to the formal impeachment inquiry that could then follow. If done well—even as the House brought up measures to shore up the Affordable Care Act, to protect children from family separation, to improve the lives of working families, to begin to address infrastructure needs and clean energy, along with oversight of failures in disaster relief, border activities, college-loan policy, and corruption in many departments—then impeachment would look powerfully more like a logical and necessary step, less like a vindictive, partisan move.
Democrats should not jump the gun on impeachment. But it would be a serious dereliction of duty if they did not move now to set the stage for what should happen when the time and setting are right.