The irony of Trump’s attitude toward federal law enforcement is that the president fears the FBI is exactly what he wants it to be: a gang of thugs operating on no higher principle than political advantage. His only problem is that they are not his thugs. “You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack [Kennedy] didn’t talk about investigations?” Mueller quotes the president as raging. “Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?” The man described in the report is someone so imprisoned in his own consciousness that he seems incapable of understanding that other people might, unlike him, go through the world as something other than scammers or bullies.
This worldview depends on ignoring the post-Watergate reforms designed to prevent the president from using the nation’s intelligence and law-enforcement capabilities as political tools. More than that, it requires pretending that those reforms never existed at all—that Trump’s corruption is not an anomaly, but only an honest recognition of what everyone who’s savvy already knew to be the case. It requires erasing the Nixon impeachment process, and the fact that the House Judiciary Committee included among the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by Richard Nixon that he “repeatedly engaged in conduct … impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries.”
J. W. Verret: The Mueller report was my tipping point
That article of impeachment was Congress’s way of drawing a line in the sand, establishing Nixon’s efforts to leverage state power to his own advantage as outside the scope of what is acceptable for a president to do. Today’s Congress, faced with the Mueller report, has the same prerogative.
The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives remains resistant to impeachment, reportedly out of concern that it could buoy the president’s poll numbers going into an election year. Likewise, it argues, any impeachment would almost certainly run aground in the Republican Senate. But there is more to impeachment than a bare political calculation. It’s also a way of marking a breach, declaring that the presidency should not be what a particular president has tried to shape it into. In the case of Watergate, that statement of protest was more or less successful for decades, at least until it ran headlong into Donald Trump.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously argued that, even if a society were to disband entirely, “the last murderer remaining in the prison would first have to be executed … for otherwise the people can be regarded as collaborators in this public violation of justice.” Kant’s argument is, obviously, extreme. And for all Trump’s public embrace of corruption, he has not yet shot anyone on Fifth Avenue. But the point is that, when an injustice is done, we all shoulder some kind of mutual obligation to set right the imbalance in the world or otherwise become complicit in it. For Congress today to look at the conduct described in the Mueller report and decide that it does not merit impeachment is for it to acquiesce to Trump’s effort to establish his own corruption not only as the new norm, but also as the way things have always been. To put it another way, given Congress’s inaction, can you really blame Rudy Giuliani for trying his luck in Ukraine?