Democrats have been freed from the shackles of prudence and are now openly talking about starting impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, despite the fact that for months the party’s leadership has insisted that any such moves would have to wait until Special Counsel Robert Mueller shares his findings.
Everything changed when late Thursday night, BuzzFeed News dropped the bombshell report claiming that Mueller has substantial evidence showing that Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, implicating the president directly in potential charges of perjury, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice.
In response, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said Mueller in light of the report, “it’s about time for him to show Congress his cards before it’s too late for us to act.” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) said, “it is time for the House Judiciary Committee to start holding hearings to establish a record of whether @POTUS committed high crimes.” And Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) said “If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.” House Democrats are preparing to launch investigations into the allegations. Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Rep. Al Green (D-LA) have long been calling for impeachment — and it seems they may get their way.
But while the BuzzFeed piece is a major development and needs to be taken seriously, Democrats are making a mistake by focusing so much on it — and missing the forest for the trees.
Consider that Trump said this Friday morning:
This tweet followed up on his weekend on-air call to Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, in which he said Cohen’s father-in-law should be “looked at,” implying somehow that he, in fact, committed crimes. Democrats quickly called this out as an attempt to intimidate a witness against him — a federal crime.
“Given that Michael Cohen has already implicated the president in two campaign finance crimes, the president is likely nervous about what Mr. Cohen might testify about in front of Congress,” Professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a campaign finance law expert at Stetson University College of Law, told Law & Crime. “But that nervousness is no excuse for trying to intimidate a potential Congressional witness like Mr. Cohen.”
According to CNN, the intimidation is working, at least to some extent. Trump’s attackshave made him worried about his family given his upcoming congressional testimony, CNN reported, but he still plans on following through. Lanny Davis, Cohen’s spokesman, confirmed that the family feels intimidated by Trump’s attacks.
And it’s not the first time. Legal experts have previously said that Trump’s Twitter tirades have fit the bill for criminal witness intimidation as well.
“This is genuinely looking like witness tampering,” said former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal with regard to earlier tweets by the president. “DOJ (at least with a nonfake AG) prosecutes cases like these all the time. The fact it’s done out in the open is no defense.”
Since then, it’s only gotten worse.
Some might argue that Trump’s tweets are somewhat ambiguous and that his actual intentions are hard to ascertain. But nothing could be plainer than what Trump’s intention is — does anyone doubt that Trump doesn’t want Cohen to testify? Is there any doubt that he would feel he’d accomplished his ends if Cohen decided not to testify out of fear?
In other words, Trump’s tweets, public to all, should be enough to begin impeachment proceedings. I’ve argued that there are other bases for impeachment charges as well.
There is, of course, a reason Democrats haven’t seized on witness intimidation and other charges to begin impeachment proceedings: They don’t think Republicans will go along with it.
Because the report is new, because the evidence supposedly comes from Mueller, and because it refers to secret documents supposedly implicating the president in a crime, it gives the impression that it would be taken more seriously than a crime committed by tweet. (It should be noted, however, that in some ways Trump’s apparent intimidation is much more grave than his alleged suborning of perjury, because it involves an abuse of office and a threat to a third party to accomplish the same end.)
But there’s every reason to believe that Republicans would find reasons to avoid impeaching Trump for the findings of the BuzzFeed report, even if it is completely accurate.
And if the report isn’t accurate — either the result of a complete fabrication to the journalists in question or if, perhaps, it exaggerates key details — Democrats’ standing to impeach could be severely hindered. If you base an impeachment push around a single story that turns out to be false, it could discredit other, legitimate impeachment charges. Democrats would be better positioned if they brought forward a much broader proceeding designed to look at a wide range of potential impeachment charges, including the obvious evidence for witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, as well as the allegations of suborning perjury.
They don’t have to rush it; they have time to make their case and for more evidence to emerge. But they could make clear that the president’s obstructive behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop.