America is a hot mess right now. Rather than feeling humbled as only the third impeached president in U.S. history, President Trump — with the democracy-dies-in-broad-daylight help of his Roy Cohn-flavored attorney general, William Barr — has been emboldened to not just flout the established rule of law, and 233 years of constitutional norms, but to boast about his various high crimes and misdemeanors on Twitter.
As I write this, hundreds of federal judges are holding an emergency meeting on what they see as a crisis for American democracy. Many Democrats — increasingly convinced that a hardening dictatorship at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can’t be stopped through quaint, old-fashioned small-d democratic politics — are now looking toward an oligarch who wants to buy back the White House. So naturally I’ve been thinking about the Houston Astros.
If you’re a political junkie but not a sports fan, the Astros are enmeshed in baseball’s biggest scandal in in a generation, after revelations that in 2017 they used cameras to steal the opposing team’s signs so their batters could know what pitch was coming, signaled by banging on a trash can or possibly (unconfirmed) more elaborate tools like buzzers. The cheating Astros rode this regimen all the way to the 2017 World Series championship, the first in franchise history. The baseball public is outraged. The baseball establishment? Meh.
Turns out there’s no impeachment in baseball. Sure, a few heads have rolled, but the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, has mostly been channeling his inner Susan Collins — suggesting that of course he’s concerned, but that shame should prevent the Astros or any other team from behaving badly in the future. A formal punishment just feels pointless to Manfred. “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act," the commissioner said — further enraging fans and non-Astro players by saying the World Series quest that is our annual Moby-Dick-level obsession is all just for “a piece of metal.”
What a mess. The political equivalent — this is crazy, but hear me out — would be like the American president cheating in an election, stealing the affection of a foreign president by holding back on defense aid so he can bang loudly on a trash can that a curveball is coming for his 2020 election opponent. And then imagine if there were 52 “commissioners” who said cheating looks bad, but doing something in response would be “a futile act.”
This is the state of play in America in February 2020. We are all Susan Collins, and we are all Rob Manfred, throwing our hands up to the sky in the face of flagrant wrongdoing and muttering to the world, “Whaddya are you gonna do?” It feels very much not coincidental that this is happening in baseball and American politics at the same time. It’s the culture — win at all costs, and any rules or resistance is “futile.” It’s why the cynical, amoral strategy of Mike Bloomberg — which would have been scorned just a few years ago as “buying the presidency” — suddenly makes sense, as we all struggle for oxygen in this new moral vacuum.
If you’re a sports junkie who doesn’t follow the government, here is what Trump and Barr have been up to in the last few weeks. Last week, Barr intervened to overrule his career prosecutors to push for a lighter prison sentence for Roger Stone, longtime friend and adviser to Barr’s boss, the president, and now it’s coming out he’s made similar moves for other Trump associates. Trump himself has responded to his acquittal by openly retaliating against those who testified against him — like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman — and tweeting threats at judges and jurors.
This is bad, but what’s really scary is that it’s easy to imagine a not-too distant future when things get much, more worse — especially if Trump manages to win a second term in November. There could be pardons for Trump’s pals who’ve mostly kept their mouths shut — Stone, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort — as well as more brutal arrests and detentions for undocumented migrants, more ignoring on Congress on border walls or on waging war. And trying to stop or even somehow sanction a monarchical president would be “futile.”
But House Democrats — the one branch of American government not either all or partially under the thumb of Trump — seem to be on the Manfred-Collins futility track of resigned compliance, after impeaching the president yet winning over just one lone Republican vote. The New York Times reported this week that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats have agreed that the strategy between now and the November election will be to push an agenda around health care and jobs — and forget all that impeachment stuff.
“Health care, health care, health care,” Pelosi reportedly told a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, saying that the party’s strategy would be laser-focused in winning in the fall and keeping its current majority on the House side of the Capitol. Democratic strategists believe, after all, that largely ignoring Trump’s abuses of power and focusing on health care is how the party gained 40 seats and re-took the House in 2018.
This notion seems wrong on several levels. The 2018 Democrats were clever not to talk about Trump — and thus wave a red flag in the face of his most rabid supporters — because they didn’t have to. The people on the ground who won those seats back for the Democrats — the army of volunteers who knocked on doors, made phone calls, preached to neighbors — were almost single-minded in their desire to hold the president to account. These voters were mad when Pelosi & Co. stalled on going after Trump in early 2019, then thrilled by the decision to impeach.
The 2020 Democratic primaries have been instructive in this regard. The series of presidential debates have featured seemingly interminable debates on improving health care and how to pay for it — and the ratings have declined nearly every single time. Then Mike Bloomberg entered the race with a single-minded pitch — I have the money and the nerve to beat Donald Trump — and immediately went from zero to nearly 20 percent support.
If Trump and Barr go deeper on the dictatorial path — knowing that Pelosi and Democrats will respond by yammering something about co-pays — those same voters who fueled the 2018 anti-Trump backlash will become thoroughly discouraged and demoralized about the state of democracy. Not as many will be out knocking on doors. Some might not even vote, or be drawn toward third parties with more radical solutions.
And that’s just looking at the situation from a purely political point of view. As many Democratic lawmakers so rightly pointed out during Trump’s impeachment, holding the president to account wasn’t the politically easy route — a GOP-led Senate acquittal was assured, and it would rally the president’s base — but it was the only moral path. Said Rep. Adam Schiff: “Truth matters, and right matters ... Otherwise we are lost.”
So to throw that all away now for a jobs agenda seems kind of ... lost. Here’s what House Democrats can and should be doing:
1. Investigate, investigate, investigate. The lesson of impeachment was that while it may be politically impossible to punish wrongdoing in the current political climate, the House and its investigatory powers are currently the only way to put the truth before American voters. The window that witnesses such as Vindman and Fiona Hill opened on the corruption of the Trump White House made the impeachment process hugely worthwhile, even when Trump’s removal was never in doubt.
House Democrats should subpoena and do whatever else it takes to get former national security adviser John Bolton to tell his story under oath — and not in the pages of a self-serving, money-motivated book. They should also continue to press in court to compel other administration officials to testify — partly to ensure that the notion of congressional oversight is not demolished by the executive branch. And don’t be shy about other fronts — such as the Trump’s family worrisome relationship with Deutsche Bank, revealed in an explosive new book.
2. Push an aggressive anti-corruption agenda. Some of this has already been done — for example, the ballot security measures that have passed the House but have been suffocated in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But the nightmare of Trump’s presidency screams out for a stronger package of bills that would strengthen the rule of law, prevent future election cheating, make public information about candidates’ taxes and their health, and tighten the ban on emoluments that already exists in the Constitution. No, McConnell won’t enact these, either, but it’s something to run on in November.
3. Don’t surrender the powers to impeach and to censure. Sure, a second impeachment of Trump — no matter how serious the infraction — is off the table (for his first term, anyway), and a House vote to formally censure Trump (which has only happened once, for Andrew Jackson) or to impeach Barr for their meddling in the judicial process could be politically foolhardy. That said, given how the last two weeks have gone, it’s also possible to imagine high crimes and misdemeanors so egregious that the House would have little choice but to do something.