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Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election didn’t provide the smoking gun on collusion with Russia that many were expecting, but it did paint a picture of a President willing to repeatedly, brazenly, and unashamedly obstruct justice at every opportunity. It also suggests that Trump was restrained from more serious criminality only by the timely intervention of underlings and cabinet officials determined to save him from his own worst impulses. So where does all this leave the conversation on impeachment? With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, calls are escalating for action to remove Trump for office. While some see a moral imperative for Congress to act, others point out the unlikelihood of a Republican-controlled Senate taking such action seriously. On this week’s Deconstructed, Mehdi Hasan talks with Tom Steyer, the hedge fund Billionaire who launched the “Need to Impeach” campaign in 2017, and with Vox.com editor Ezra Klein, who thinks political considerations make impeachment a bad idea.
Tom Steyer: If in fact, we don’t hold this president to account, we will have normalized a president who ignores the law, who ignores the constitution and who ignores the American people. And to me, that would be a tragedy.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back to a new season of Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. There’s been a lot going on while we’ve been away for the past month – including a certain report from a certain special counsel. Where does the Mueller report leave the debate over impeachment? I’ll ask Tom Steyer, the billionaire Democrat funding the Need To Impeach campaign that seems to have Trump spooked.
TS: I think that we have an obligation to make the case in front of the American people to force those senators to confront their constituents and their conscience.
MH: Then, I’ll speak to the well-known liberal journalist Ezra Klein, editor-at-large at Vox, who thinks there’s a big problem with impeachment.
Ezra Klein: The idea that you would not think about at all the polls or the public or building support for it before you go into it because it’s some kind of moral principle, I think is wrong.
MH: So, on today’s show, the case for, and against impeaching Donald Trump.
The polls show that Americans don’t want to impeach the president. Even support for impeachment amongst Democratic voters is down in the wake of the Mueller report, which Attorney General Bill Barr and the Republicans have spun as clearing Donald Trump of any crimes.
Donald J. Trump: No collusion, no obstruction.
MH: First off, that’s a lie. It’s impossible to read the 448 pages of the Mueller report and come to any other conclusion than that the president of the United States repeatedly, brazenly, unashamedly obstructed justice, which is both a crime and an impeachable offense. And don’t take my word for it, listen to conservative law professor J.W. Verret, who served on the Trump transition team and now supports impeachment.
J.W. Verret [on CNN]: For me, it’s the principle obstruction issues that Mueller highlights, depending on how you count, 10 to 12 separate counts of potential obstruction of justice. Impeachment is the start of the process. It’s not the end. I think most of us think generally, impeachment — Oh, that means a finding that you’re no longer president. No, no, it’s the beginning of a process. It’s like a grand jury investigation. That’s the best analogy. And there’s more than enough here. This is the most extensive grand jury referral I’ve ever seen.
MH: As for the polling – yeah, Americans don’t support impeachment. Now. So make the case, hold the hearings, show them the evidence. They didn’t support impeaching Nixon either, right up until after the House Judiciary Committee published articles of impeachment — the first of which, by the way, centered on obstruction of justice. I’m always reminded of the famous West Wing scene, in which pollster Joey Lucas explains the importance of leading public opinion, shaping public opinion, to White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman.
Joey Lucas: You say that these numbers mean dial it down. I say they mean dial it up. You haven’t gotten through. There are people you haven’t persuaded yet. These numbers mean dial it up. Otherwise you’re like the French radical, watching the crowd run by and saying, ‘There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.’
MH: Of course, Democratic Party leaders in Congress don’t like leading, they like following, they like compromising, they like rolling over. I’m sorry, they do. They think the impeachment of Bill Clinton in the late 1990s hurt the Republican Party, even though the Republicans won the White House the year after they tried and failed to remove Clinton from office.
On impeachment, remember, Democratic Party leaders also told us to wait for the Mueller report, even though, as you’ve all heard me point out on this show before, you don’t even need Mueller or Russia to make the case for impeachment.
Trump does impeachable things on a near-weekly basis. You could impeach him for trying to illegally divert emergency relief funds from Puerto Rico to Texas and Louisiana, or for making illegal hush money payments to a porn star who he slept with, or for trying to use the federal government to settle personal scores with private businesses like Amazon, or for tax fraud, or for trying making money out of the presidency. You could impeach just him for bringing the office of the presidency into deep, deep disrepute. To quote Republican Senator Lindsey Graham during the Clinton impeachment proceedings.
Lindsey Graham: Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.
MH: If you don’t impeach Trump, how do you hold him to account? What kind of precedent do you set for future presidents? Or even this president? How do you stop him from continuing to run roughshod over the constitution, from continuing to break all the rules, from continuing to normalize both corruption and lawlessness, both cruelty and bigotry? Yeah, you can try and beat him at the ballot box in 2020 but the founders put impeachment in the constitution for a reason. So, look, from my perspective it’s pretty straightforward: if not Trump, who? If not now, when?
MH: In a moment, I’m going to talk to Vox’s Ezra Klein about the undeniable challenges associated with impeaching this president but before that, I want to speak to the man who has perhaps done more than anyone else in America to put impeachment on the political agenda — billionaire activist and Democratic Party donor Tom Steyer.
Margaret Hoover: A former hedge fund manager from California, Tom Steyer believes impeaching President Trump is a moral imperative, one of the defining issues of our time.
MH: In 2017, Steyer launched the Need to Impeach campaign, which has attracted more than 8 million signatures online and which has seen him spend around $50 million dollars of his own personal fortune. Democratic Party leaders aren’t happy with him because they don’t want to impeach. Meanwhile, President Trump has attacked Steyer on Twitter as a weirdo. Yes, I know, I know, the irony.
Tom Steyer, welcome to Deconstructed.
TS: Mehdi, what a treat to be here.
MH: You launched Need to Impeach back in October 2017, less than a year into Trump’s presidency, a full 18 months before Robert Mueller published his report or had his report published to the public. Why? What made you launch what some might call a quixotic campaign for impeachment so early on in this presidency?
TS: Well, Mehdi, we all could see from public information that this was a president who is obstructing justice. He’d already fired Mr. Comey. He was already almost on a daily basis trying to prevent any kind of investigation of his campaign or his presidency. And he was also a president who in plain sight was corrupt. He was taking money through his real estate operations, directly from foreign governments, and from American companies that were subject to his jurisdiction. And that is absolutely contrary to his promise to put the American people and our interests ahead of himself.
MH: Trump, of course, known for keeping all of his promises. What do you think you’re campaign has achieved in terms of shifting public opinion? Because last summer you had 49 percent of voters backing impeachment and now post Mueller is down to 37 percent even among Democrats. It was 75 percent in favor of starting impeachment proceedings last summer. Now, it’s 62 percent. Are you as frustrated as I am when you see those numbers and the trend?
TS: No, you know from my standpoint what we’re trying to do is get closer to what I would think of as direct democracy, the voice of the American people. So one thing we’ve done is we’ve gotten 8 million people individually to go to our website needtoimpeach.com and sign up. And the other thing that we’re trying really hard to do that we’re pushing on constantly is to get televised hearings in front of the American people so that we can see across the country who these people are and what they’ve been doing so the American people can make up our minds. I don’t feel that those numbers that move around on impeachment don’t reflect the fact that the American people have had a chance to see for themselves what’s really going on? We’ve had one hearing, the Michael Cohen hearing. The question is why haven’t we had dozens?
MH: Yeah, although you see the Michael Cohen hearings, during the whole Kavanaugh proceedings, you had the Christine Blasey-Ford moment. You had Jim Comey in front of Congress. We keep being told that these are going to be turning points. This is the beginning of the end for Trump and his team and it tends not to be.
TS: Well, the funny thing is Michael Cohen did move the impeachment sentiment 6 percent in one day. We need to have a series of hearings on TV like the Cohen hearing, frankly like the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, where Americans can experience it themselves and make up our own minds because that is actually what we should be relying on is the values and sentiments and judgment of the American people.
MH: Cohen definitely did help make the case for it with his testimony. The Mueller report definitely has undermined some of the case. I’m not talking substantive terms because I think the Mueller report actually does contain a lot of impeachable stuff. I’m talking about in terms of just public opinion. Has it changed your own view of the case for impeachment at all? Have you had any second thoughts? I mean Mueller did not provide the liberals in America, Democrats in America with the smoking gun on collusion with Russia, on a Trump criminal conspiracy with Russia that a lot of them had been hoping for, waiting for, assuming he would provide for them.
TS: You know, the funny thing, Mehdi, is we said for a year and a half, don’t wait for the Mueller report. There’ll be a lot of information there that bolsters our case, but we can see in plain sight that he’s obstructing justice —
MH: Yes, you don’t need Mueller to make the case for impeachment.
TS: — And Mueller made the case for obstruction of justice. If you read the Mueller report — which to my chagrin I forced myself to do, 488 pages — he makes a very strong case that this president has consistently obstructed justice and actually, we’re seeing the president obstruct justice on a daily basis by his refusal to respond to Congress’s subpoenas or requests for testimony.
MH: Just to be clear, is your case, has your case always been that you don’t need Mueller to impeach? There’s a case for impeachment even without Russia, Mueller, Trump obstruction?
TS: Well, Mehdi, let’s take one step back. What is impeachment? It’s an old word like verily or thusly or thou. What is impeachment? It is basically a process to decide whether the president should be tried in the Senate to be thrown out of office. So, it’s really saying shall we go through the process of bringing all these facts forward for the for the Congress and the American people to see to decide whether there’s enough evidence to try them in the Senate? And we’ve been there for a long time.
MH: A lot of people listening to this podcast will agree with you and will agree with the moral case for impeachment. They’d agree that Trump deserves to be impeached in the House and convicted in the Senate but they might be skeptical that it will work. There’s a lot of practical political objections to it and I want to put three very common Democratic liberal arguments against impeachment to you and have you respond to them. Number one: what Tom Steyer, is your response to the very political argument that impeaching Trump in the House is a waste of time given that you’re not going to get a conviction in the Senate? The Democrats don’t have the two-thirds majority the Constitution demands that they have and they aren’t going to get it anytime soon. So, this is all just theater what you’re doing. What’s your response to that?
TS: Well, first of all the way that this will work if it proceeds the way that I’m requesting and I believe the American people want, is a series of hearings where the American people can judge for ourselves.
MH: The American people won’t be voting in the Senate, sadly.
TS: No, they won’t but they will be voting for those senators. So, the actual thing —
MH: So, you actually believe you can turn around the Senate? You actually think Republican senators will vote to impeach the president?
TS: That is what happened in 1974.
MH: Different time, Tom. Different time.
MH: The Republican party right now is far more polarized, far more spineless.
TS: Okay, then let’s — If the American people change their mind that a significant majority of Americans believe this President should be removed from office, this will be incredibly upfront and important politically. And they will be sending a message to every one of those Senators, Mehdi, and that message will be get rid of him or we’ll get rid of you. And that is a message which I believe every elected official will have to take very seriously.
MH: — You don’t rule out the prospect of Republican Senators before 2020 voting for impeachment?
TS: Absolutely not, but beyond that, I think that we have an obligation to make the case in front of the American people to prove that in fact, we do believe in our own values and to force those Senators to confront their constituents and their conscience. Look, in my opinion, this argument’s over. This president obstructed justice and he’s corrupt.
MH: Let’s assume there’s a case for it —
TS: The argument’s over. The fight is on.
MH: Got it. So, number one, you’re saying you don’t think that there’s an inherent block in the Senate. It can be turned around. Okay, number two, what is your response to the very political argument from some liberals, some on the left that if you were to impeach and get rid of Trump, you get Mike Pence. Who wants President Pence this side of 2020?
TS: This isn’t about a partisan fight even though that’s how it’s being cast and how people are talking about it. This is actually about a question of patriotism and standing up for basic American values. I’ve been saying all along if we get rid of Mr. Trump, we will get a conservative Republican from Indiana with whom I agree on virtually nothing but there’s something else going on here. We have a rogue president who is deeply corrupt.
MH: And unstable.
TS: And who is a danger to the system itself and if we in fact do not impeach him and remove him from office, we’re making a statement that it’s okay. We’ve now normalized corruption. We have said we don’t believe in the rule of law being applied equally to the rich and powerful and we’ve basically changed the whole nature of America. And that is just wrong.
MH: You might as well get rid of impeachment from the Constitution if you don’t use it on this guy. Number three, the third practical objection is this: what is your response to the argument that impeaching Trump inflames his base, gets them all worked up more likely to turn out for him in 2020, that impeachment will hurt the Democrats presidential chances next year while helping Trump’s re-election effort?
TS: I would say to any of your progressive listeners who make that point: guys and gals, the Republicans are turning out in 2020 come hell or high water. They’re already incredibly intense. Eleven million more Republicans voted in 2018 than in 2014. The Republicans are going to turn out. The question is are the Democrats going to turn out? Are people actually going to come out because they believe this system works, that their representatives tell the truth and stand up for the values that they believe in? So, I think for anyone who’s worried about inflaming Republicans, they should get over themselves. The Republicans are inflamed.
MH: Well put. I agree.
TS: That’s just craziness.
MH: I agree with you. Nancy Pelosi has talked about impeachment not being worth it, is the phrase she used, not being worth the division, polarization in this country that undoubtedly would be exacerbated by an impeachment effort, especially a failed one. You don’t deny that, do you? You don’t deny how messy this is going to be?
TS: I do. I see this completely differently.
TS: In my opinion, the only way this can happen is through Americans coming together across party lines, across geographic lines, across the divisions that actually this president has work so hard to create.
MH: What evidence is there that Republicans are going to drop Trump based on some televised hearings? They didn’t drop him when he was praising neo-Nazis.
TS: In my experience, and it goes back to Watergate —
MH: Watergate was a different time, Tom.
TS: It was a different time.
MH: There was no Fox News. There was no Breitbart. There was no social media to allow you to live in a bubble and not see what’s happening on TV.
TS: That’s the point about televised hearings.
MH: Yeah, but they’re not —
TS: Televised hearings are not curated by Fox News or Breitbart or the Wall Street Journal. You get a chance to actually watch it live and respond as an American citizen. And actually, that’s exactly what we’re talking about. The American people —
MH: I wish I was as optimistic as you.
TS: That’s why the Mueller report could never succeed in the way that I’m talking about because it would — no one would read it. They would always hear it described and regardless of what was in the Mueller report you knew what Fox News was going to say. He’s been exonerated. There’s nothing new in here. We should move on. So, in fact, the only way to have this is a direct participation through televised hearings, so Americans make up our own mind.
MH: So, given how confident you are, how optimistic you are about this strategy, this approach, do you think Nancy Pelosi — You’re from San Francisco.
TS: She’s my congressperson.
MH: She’s your congressperson.
TS: Has been for over 30 years.
MH: Do you think she would have failed as Speaker if she doesn’t even try and impeach this President between now and November 2020? Because you’re saying it’s a very clear straightforward strategy. She doesn’t adopt it. Does that make her a failure in your view?
TS: Look, I think what you’ve seen Speaker Pelosi do is her views have continued to change as the facts have changed. And what we’re seeing right now is a president who’s refusing all requests for subpoena for himself or anyone in his administration. He has sued the chairman of the House Oversight Committee. personally. He has sued —
MH: So, you think she’s going to move —
TS: He has sued Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
MH: You think she’s going to move?
TS: I think the facts are going to compel movement.
MH: A lot of people will look at someone like yourself, a billionaire, a finance guy, a former hedge fund guy spending millions of dollars on this political campaign of yours and say whether we agree with you or not on impeachment, whether we agree with your motives or not, a billionaire, like yourself shouldn’t be able to influence politics in this kind of outsized way, that you’re part of the problem, not the solution. What do you say to them?
TS: I say first of all, I agree that money is perverting politics. I agree with the 80 percent of Americans who believe that corporations have bought the democracy and then I’d ask you to look at what we’re doing in every phase of our organization. In 2018, we did the largest youth voter mobilization in American history. In the 37 congressional districts that we targeted, voting by people under 30 went up by 125 percent. We ran three propositions for clean energy and the third thing we did is we built a signature campaign to get people to vote by signing up saying we want to impeach the president. In every case, I am using my money to try and build the Democratic voice, the broadest participation in our democracy —
MH: But you’re also acknowledging that you’d like to live in an America where it didn’t require people like yourself —
MH: — To do this?
TS: What I’m interested in is creating a direct democracy, public funding of elections and as much as possible the voice of the American people being fully reflected, which it is not and which is causing an absolute crisis in the United States.
MH: I think we agree on that. Although, we may disagree a bit about direct democracy, a discussion for another day. Some would say that the reluctance on the part of House Democrats to impeach — Steny Hoyer came out the day of Mueller to say “We’re not doing this” — is more to do with weakness, spinelessness, maybe even cowardice on their part. I mean, imagine the reverse, Tom. If the Republicans were in this position now, you know and I know they would have been impeached or possibly one called for execution —
TS: Day one.
MH: — By now. Yeah, they were planning to impeach Hillary Clinton day one for Benghazi and co. Why are the Democrats so cautious and, dare I say, cowardly?
TS: In my opinion, if in fact we don’t hold this president to account in the Congress of the United States, then there’s little doubt that we will have lost house oversight or congressional oversight. There is little doubt we’ll have lost separation of powers and we will in effect have made, we will have normalized a president who ignores the law, who ignores the Constitution and who ignores the American people. And to me, that would be a tragedy.
MH: Are you planning to run for president yourself? There was a time when people were talking about you running for president. In fact, some of your critics said this whole Need to Impeach campaign was just one elaborate plan to get an email list with eight million signatures on it so you then could run in the Democratic primaries.
TS: I have no plans to run for president.
MH: Did you? Did you think about it?
TS: I asked myself the question that I ask every time I have to make a choice Mehdi, which is what can I do that will have the most differential positive impact? And at that point, I think we had six million signatures. We add five to ten thousand a day and I thought this — I’m the one person who’s built this up. I’m the one person who’s willing to make this case.
MH: One person who does want you to run for president is Donald Trump or pretends he does. He keeps making cracks about you. He’s tweeted “wacky and totally unhinged Tom Steyer never wins elections.” Recently, he tweeted “Weirdo Tom Steyer doesn’t have the guts or money to run for president. He’s all talk.” You seem to have gotten under his skin.
TS: I seem to have. You know, it’s sort of funny because there are lots of things that I’m sensitive about, being weird is not one of them. It’s sort of like have you — he’s never met me.
MH: If impeachment doesn’t happen, you spent something like 50 million dollars or something on this campaign, will you have any regrets? Will you think maybe I should have done something else for the last few years?
TS: So, Mehdi, let me rephrase your question. Will I ever regret trying to tell the truth and protect the American people from what I consider to be a direct attack on our rights and our sovereignty as a people? Will I ever regret that? Never. Would I ever regret standing up for what I think is the absolute truth and the right when it’s unpopular to do so and to try and empower the voice of Americans across the country to stand up for ourselves? Would I regret that? No, why would I?
MH: Tom Steyer, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
TS: Mehdi, what a treat to be here, seriously.
MH: That was Tom Steyer from Need to Impeach. Joining me now for an alternative view on the case for impeachment is liberal journalist and commentator Ezra Klein, co-founder of Vox where he’s now an editor-at-large and host of the very good podcast The Ezra Klein Show. Ezra, welcome to Deconstructed.
EK: Thank you for having me.
MH: In the wake of the Mueller report being published, you wrote a piece for Vox headlined “The Problem with Impeachment.” Briefly summarize for our listeners who have just been listening to Tom Steyer make the case for impeachment what your “problem” with it is.
EK: So, it’s not even my problem. I would say it is our problem. We collectively have a problem with impeachment. I would say the big picture problem with impeachment is that it is a mechanism constructed in the Constitution before the era of parties. And so, the idea was impeachment would be utilized by a branch of government trying to corral or check another branch of government. As it happens, impeachment has never been used, not effectively, or even when it’s been used ineffectively, not ineffectively, without the opposition party controlling both branches. So, impeachment first, and I think this is the biggest problem, is a broken mechanism of accountability amidst partisan politics. Instead, parties cooperate across branches instead of the competition being between the separate branches. So number one, when you’re starting out with impeachment, the first question you have to ask is okay, what are you trying to achieve here? What do you think you can achieve here? And so, with a Republican Senate and given how Republicans have acted throughout this, I think it’s very unlikely to believe you could get a president removed.
But from there, the bigger thing I was trying to say within a debate that had moved very rapidly to a place of, I don’t call it dogmatism, but people were very headstrong on the idea that political questions should not enter into the impeachment calculation whatsoever and my view is that impeachment is a political remedy. I’m somebody who thinks it’s a remedy we should use a lot more actually, but the idea that you would not think about at all the polls or the public or building support for it before you go into it because it’s some kind of moral principle I think, is wrong. And it’s particularly wrong if you are trying to ensure the rule of law and Democratic accountability in the system. If you have a poorly managed impeachment trial that ends up strengthening Donald Trump’s ability to evade accountability, then you’ve created a blow against the very thing you’re trying to protect.
MH: In your piece you quoted John Favreau from Pod Save America, the former Obama speech writer saying in response to Democrats resisting calls for impeachment, “If you’re president,” this is Jon Favreau’s quote. “If you’re president, you get to commit whatever crime you’d like so long as your party has enough votes in Congress to help you escape conviction. Does that seem like a great precedent?” And you wrote in response to him “No, it’s a terrible precedent, but then we’re trapped in a terrible political system. All the options are bad.” Ezra, they are all bad, but they’re not equally bad. Leaving Trump in office untouched for another 18 months as he piles up one high crime and misdemeanor after other is surely the worst of a bunch of bad options.
EK: Well, so I mean, but the argument I would make there is state the other option clearly. Leaving Trump in office, but potentially strengthening his ability to win re-election, if that is in fact the case of what impeachment would do, is also a bad option.
MH: Is that what you believe? You believe that a failed impeachment, if it would help him be re-elected in 2020.
EK: I lean that way now, yes. So, what I see —
MH: Even though in the case of the 1990s of course, that’s not what happened.
EK: So, in 1998, in the election that was about impeachment, right, the 1998 election, the Republicans lost a ton of seats. And so, even if you believe that impeachment wouldn’t affect the presidential election very much, it would actually just be something that is visited upon Congress by a country that was very clear in not wanting impeachment, and so what would happen is Democrats who hold a lot more seats, of course, that Trump was strong in than Republicans hold seats at this point that he was weak in so, Democrats would in fact, lose the House. That doesn’t seem like a great option to me either. I think there’s a strange bit of revisionist history of 1998.
Mh: But in 2000, after the failed attempt in the Senate, Republicans did win the presidency, did hold onto the House and did tie the Senate and then won the Senate in 2002.
EK: Yeah, so my view on this is just I think different than yours. I think the political science that sort of looked at this is when voters were voting on impeachment, when that was our main mechanism and the thing that they were trying to look at, you can see in the polls, in the districts where it was a big deal that people lost seats. Al Gore and George W. Bush decided not to run a campaign about that. They decided not to run a campaign based on who is right or wrong about impeachment. So, it wasn’t a major issue. A lot of what gets —
MH: You’re right it wasn’t a major issue in 2000, but don’t forget Al Gore decided to distance himself from Bill Clinton precisely because of impeachment and that hurt Gore.
EK: So let me ask you this. So, let me turn the question a little bit on you here. So, your view is that impeachment was a political winner for the Republicans? Newt Gingrich stepped down. They lost all the seats —
MH: I’m not saying it was a winner, I’m saying it wasn’t a loser. I’m saying by definition, it wasn’t a loser. Kept the House —
EK: And so, in a country right now, where only 34 percent say you should do this and Democrats in every campaign they’re running, right — In 2018, they were very clearly didn’t want to run in this kind of thing. They want to do healthcare. The presidentials talk about this. Even Elizabeth Warren, who was the first out of the gate said oh, we can just do that in three days. Just take the vote and be done with it. It’s very — Bernie Sanders has come out and said that he does not want this dominating the 2020 election. You think they’re all wrong, that they’re misreading the electorate, that they’re misreading the mood of the country, that the way they’re seeing this, they’re just incorrect?
MH: On the mood of the country — Let’s talk about because you mentioned it a few times. There is this argument, you nod to it in your piece, about the polling and some might say you’re putting the horse before the cart — Although actually, let’s, okay, let me rephrase this. Let’s find some common ground because you say impeachment is a process. I’m not sure people are disputing that but when you talk about the polling, surely, to change people’s minds on impeachment you have to actually make the case for impeachment. At the start of the Watergate hearings, according to Gallup just 26 percent of Americans thought Nixon should be impeached and forced to resign, 61 percent didn’t. It wasn’t until after the House Judiciary Committee wrote Articles of Impeachment more than a year later that a clear majority of Americans said they backed impeaching Nixon.
EK: So, I would tell a different story about that period. So, and one thing I want to be careful on here is I feel like because I am the sort of left-of-center person here who’s being a little cautious on impeachment, I’m being put in the position of being like totally against it which is actually not my view, as I’ve said.
MH: No no, let’s find some common ground.
EK: I’m willing to take the other side of the argument. But, in the Nixon period, it was through those hearings that the key revelations came out, right? It’s in these hearings that you have things like the John Dean testimony. The difference between that period and this period is actually the information more or less has come out. I’m not saying there’s not more. I think that’s what hearings might get you. But the Mueller report has come out. Michael Cohen has testified. We actually do know a lot and so, when the public registers a judgment on this, I don’t think they’re registering an uninformed judgment. I don’t think we’re looking at something where people expect that if they hold hearings they’re going to reveal a ton that has not already been revealed. That isn’t to say, by the way, that they shouldn’t hold hearings and try. I think that maybe you should. But I don’t see the reason you can’t do that in a slow way. Again, to me —
MH: Tom Steyer was just saying to me, his argument is, because I put this point to him. You know, how do you get a Senate that’s Republican-controlled to vote for conviction? His argument is actually that people aren’t as informed and it’s not just about being informed. It’s about the process, as you say, and about showing people he thinks televised impeachment hearings will move the needle in terms of public opinion. It will force Republican Senators to pay attention to public calls for impeachment. He points to the Michael Cohen testimony as something that did move the dial. Imagine multiple such hearings. What do you say to him?
EK: So, one, it doesn’t seem to me to have moved the dial. But I guess, the thing I’d say to you or to him, frankly is the burden of proof here is tricky. You have the polls that are highly against it. You have all the politicians who are in touch with these constituencies against it. I actually don’t find the argument of an outside hedge fund billionaire on this, and I like Tom Steyer just fine, all that convincing. What I want to hear is — I’m sort of open to two pieces of this. One is just I actually think the most consistent argument in this space is it doesn’t matter. I think that, while I don’t agree with it, the view of the politics just shouldn’t matter. They should just go forward because you were protecting a sacrosanct principle within American democracy. I think that’s a reasonable view. I think some things are above politics. I’m not sure I think impeachment in this case is one of them, but I think that’s a reasonable view. What I think is a little tricky is that people trying to say that all of the available evidence is just wrong and they just know it.
MH: Put politics to one side. Let’s assume that you know, there are all these problems, that they won’t get a conviction in the Senate, that public opinion won’t shift as much as it should. It might help Trump come November 2020. But having conceded all that, what about the argument that this is a democracy, a line has to be drawn somewhere and that history at least will judge favorably those who draw the line at saying you can’t continue on down this road? You can’t just let him stay there untouched, unaccountable, unpunished. Listen to Congressman Elijah Cummings, Chair of the House Oversight Committee.
Elijah Cummings: There comes a point in life where we all have to make decisions based upon the fact it is our watch. And you know, history, I think even if we did not win possibly, if there were not impeachment, I think history would smile upon us for standing up for the Constitution.
MH: What’s your response to Congressman Cummings? He’s not hedge fund billionaire.
EK: I think that is by far the best argument. I don’t know that I think it is the right argument, but I think it is very reasonable. So, I think the question you have to ask yourself there is one, what do you think about the politics? Because if you think you can get Donald Trump out that’s actually important. But two, the only thing I wish for people who made this argument is that they had started earlier. As I said —
MH: I totally agree with you.
EK: — A couple years back now. And I think that there was a very good case that a lot of the other things Donald Trump has done is actually a stronger case for impeachment. There’s a generalized unfitness for office, a constant lying to the American public, a fact pattern around obstruction that was clear earlier. The tricky thing about the Mueller report now is the Mueller report has come out and I think the pattern of behavior it casts around obstruction is very convincing. It does not find clear evidence that Donald Trump coordinated with Russia. So, part of what it’s clearly investigating wasn’t there, right? You didn’t get the full slam-dunk Mueller report.
MH: I’m with you.
EK: To the extent that the entirety of impeachment is happening in the context of the Mueller report, I’m not sure it’s the strongest case. What I would have liked to see and what I did argue for is the idea that impeachment should be seen not as an unbelievable constitutional step, but it’s something that frankly both parties should have done when they realized that this guy is not fit to be in office as by the way, all the people around him know, as virtually every member of the Republican party in Congress knows, and as much of the public believes. So, to me one of the things about impeachment in that context is that I wouldn’t say it should just be about the Mueller report. It has to be about a larger indictment of him and that goes to your point about the 18 months.
There is a difference between saying that he’s too dangerous to leave in office and a difference in saying that there’s something that we found out about him that should be punished. The latter is actually reasonably okay for elections to manage. It is the former where he’s a clear and present danger every day he is there that I think is a moral case for impeachment that is very hard to reject.
MH: On that note of agreement between us, let us leave it that I completely agree with you on that, Ezra. And I think the Democrats were mad to put all of their eggs, impeachment eggs in the Mueller basket. I hope they don’t come to regret it. But Ezra, thanks so much for taking time out to speak with me on Deconstructed.
EK: Thank you so much for having me.
MH: That was Ezra Klein editor-at-large at Vox, host of The Ezra Klein Show making some very good arguments against rushing into impeachment.
But I think that conversation ended there on a point of important agreement between the two of us, which is that impeachment, if it happens has to be about much more than the Mueller report, has to be about much more than accusations of collusion with the Russian government or even the very clear obstruction of justice that Mueller documents in his 448 page report. Trump is the most lawless president in living memory. He has normalized lawlessness and corruption. He is unfit for office and therefore ultimately, if you hadn’t worked it out already, I’m with Tom Steyer. Impeachment has to be attempted, if not for political reasons, then for moral reasons. There has to be accountability. Donald Trump cannot be left to run roughshod over the Constitution for another 18 months. And if Democrats don’t impeach this president, they might as well take impeachment out of the Constitution. They might as well remove Article 2, Section 4 because if not Trump, who?
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Rick Kwan. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review. It helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much! See you next week.