WASHINGTON — House Democrats can't have it both ways. Either they're impeaching President Trump or they're not — and it looks like they're not.
Why Congress is not fulfilling what would seem to be its constitutional duty has nothing to do with the merits of the case against Trump, who adds to the list of his impeachable offenses almost daily. It has everything to do with a political calculation that I hope Democrats do not come to regret.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said this week that his panel is "examining the various malfeasances of the president with the view toward possibly … recommending articles of impeachment to the House." But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says this is just a "path of investigation" that might lead to a formal impeachment inquiry or, presumably, might not. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday that the House has not launched an impeachment inquiry, but later clarified that he fully supports the "investigation" whose subject, according to Nadler, is impeachment.
On Thursday, Nadler's committee approved procedural guidelines for its investigation or inquiry or whatever anyone wants to call it. "I salute them for that work," Pelosi said later. But she added that "people are saying it's good to be careful about how we proceed."
Enough with the oh-so-subtle semantic distinctions. Do something or don't — and be prepared to explain why.
With respect, how much more investigation do we need? Former special counsel Robert Mueller III spent two years compiling what amounts to an impeachment road map. Part Two of his voluminous report clearly establishes, to the satisfaction of more than 1,000 former prosecutors, that Trump's actions would have justified multiple charges of obstruction of justice. If you take the view that impeachment requires the president to have committed a statutory crime, Mueller handed it to Congress on a platter.
But impeachment doesn't even necessitate a finding that the president, beyond a reasonable doubt, violated the law. The founders left it vague, declining to define what the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" means. But from their writings we know they deeply feared that a president might use his expansive powers to act as a tyrant rather than as a servant of the people.
"Abuse of power" is not a federal crime, but it was one of the impeachment articles being prepared against Richard Nixon before he resigned. Trump abuses his power in ways that must have the founders whirring like turbines in their graves.
To cite just a few examples, look at his border policy. He ignored a court ruling and continued to separate migrant families and jail children in cages and deny them soap or toothbrushes. When Congress, which has the power of the purse, declined to fund his ridiculous border wall, he snatched billions of dollars that had been duly appropriated for other programs. According to credible reports, he told underlings to break the law to keep migrants out of the country, if necessary, and promised to pardon them if they got in trouble.
Beyond abuse of power, there is the principle that no president should use the office to corruptly enrich himself. In some cases, there appear to be clear violations of the Emoluments Clause. In others, there's just plain old-fashioned graft. Of all the hotels in Scotland, U.S. military crews can find nowhere to stay except at Trump's overpriced golf resort? Seriously? And Congress thinks this is acceptable?
I believe the founders would also consider impeachable the way Trump lies constantly to the American people. I don't need to give examples; just look at his Twitter feed or listen to the comments he makes on the White House lawn. I know that Trump may believe concepts such as trust and honor are for suckers, but his incessant lying defiles the presidency — and members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, know it does. But they do nothing about it.
The damage Trump is doing is limited only by his lack of focus. We can only hope that after he is gone things return to normal, though that is not guaranteed. And heaven help us if there is a genuine crisis while he's still in office.
The political calculation Democrats are making is that impeachment, especially if followed by acquittal in the GOP-controlled Senate, might make Trump's re-election more likely. There's no way of knowing, but I doubt it would make much of a difference one way or the other. Trump's going to inflame his base anyway. Democrats had better motivate theirs.
But everyone should realize that history's calculation must be considered as well. Future generations will judge all who decided, for whatever reason, to put politics above duty.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.