Do you remember “Iraqgate”? If so, you’re probably among the few. For the rest of us, Iraqgate was the media term for an investigation into whether U.S. agricultural loans and technology were funneled to Saddam Hussein to purchase weapons (eventually used against U.S. troops) and whether George H.W. Bush and his administration tried to cover it up.
Ultimately, there was no “there” there. Attorney General Janet Reno’s final report in 1995 found no evidence of illegal activity. But that didn’t stop Democrats like vice presidential candidate Al Gore from suggesting Mr. Bush should be impeached if re-elected. As Gore warned the National Conference of Editorial Writers on Oct. 15, 1992, “Remember that the Watergate investigation began, like this one, in the fall of an election year “.
I was reminded of Iraqgate when California Rep. Brad Sherman circulated a draft article of impeachment charging President Trump with obstruction of justice. Around the same time, Mr. Bush turned 93, and people from across the political spectrum celebrated his service to the country. Those who disagree with Mr. Bush’s politics still accept that he was a good and decent public servant. So what does it say that even a president like George Bush confronted open threats of impeachment? I believe the lesson is that the move to impeach Mr. Trump is actually part of larger and more troubling developments in American politics.
Let me be clear. My point is not that Mr. Trump is unlikely to be impeached, though history says that it is the case. Rather, my point is that, at this time — when neither he nor anyone connected with his administration or campaign has been charged with even a single crime — people should not want Mr. Trump to be impeached.
Serious people are concerned that Mr. Trump is normalizing unacceptable behaviors. I share those concerns. Mr. Trump’s tweet about Mika Brzezinski is just the latest example proving why the way Mr. Trump talks about women cannot become normal. Alluding to the assassination of your political opponent cannot become normal. A candidate suggesting that he or she will not accept the results of a free and fair election cannot become normal.
Yet the same concern applies to the fixation on impeaching Mr. Trump. We don’t want to normalize the idea that an acceptable response to the election of a leader you disagree with is to use provisions created for use only under the most extreme and rare of circumstances — the commission of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Don’t kid yourself into thinking that the discussion of impeaching Mr. Trump is only a product of recent events. Consider that a LexisNexis search of major newspaper articles published between Election Day and Inauguration Day — before Mr. Trump took office — reveals 857 unique stories containing the words “Trump” and “impeachment.” This train left the station a long time ago.
Neutral observers of American politics should be uncomfortable about this. Neutral observers should worry about how we got to the point where, according to a YouGov survey, only 68 percent of people said they would accept Donald Trump as a “legitimate president,” despite the fact that intelligence officials agree the election results were not tampered with. Too often today our political system is crossing lines we said would never be crossed. Can there be any doubt that — were Democrats actually to take moves to impeach Mr. Trump before any investigation was finished, before any criminal charges were made — that Republicans would do the same in the future to a Democratic president they oppose? No one can govern in this kind of atmosphere, which means our real problems will continue to go unaddressed.
The investigations into Russian involvement in 2016 are not a “witch hunt,” and the allegations of collusion are serious. As a political society, we need answers to those important questions. However, let’s at least be responsible enough to wait for those answers before even mentioning the word impeachment.
• David O’Connell, assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College, is the author of “God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion” (Routledge, 2014).
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