What's happening in Washington has grown much larger and more important than the political futures of Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi or any other figure in what has become a genuine constitutional crisis. It's about the future of our democracy.
For the first time ever, a president is defying the authority — and the duty — of the Congress to investigate his conduct whenever it sees fit. It sets a horrible precedent for his successors. For this Congress to excuse it would set a disastrous precedent for its successors.
President Trump is holding himself above the law. No government of the people, for the people or by the people can afford to let any politician get away with that, least of all the one in charge.
Yes, Trump is adored by a majority of Republican voters. But no one, regardless of party, can be above the law. There was once a bipartisan understanding about that. Every American — whether Republican, Democrat or independent — has nothing to gain and everything to lose from allowing a president to flout the Constitution.
Imagine, instead, that Bill Clinton had ordered his underlings to stiff-arm Kenneth Starr's investigation as it ranged far beyond the original Whitewater matter. Then remember that he was impeached over a single count of perjury for lying to conceal a sexual affair. Yet he never challenged the power of the House to do that.
Or imagine that Barack Obama had ordered Hillary Clinton to refuse to testify regarding the loss of four American lives at the consulate in Benghazi. Eight Republican-led committees flogged that issue for more than two years in a politically motivated mission to weaken her politically. The Democrats called it out for what it was, but at no time did Obama, Clinton or anyone else deny the power of Congress to investigate the tragic incident. Clinton herself testified for 11 hours.
Instead of submitting to the balance of power, as the Clintons, Obama and, eventually, even Richard Nixon did, Trump is trying to turn it to his political advantage, casting himself as the victim of a political persecution with no basis in fact.
That's exactly what Pelosi figured he would do, which is why for a long time she resisted mounting pressure from her Democratic colleagues to begin impeachment hearings into Trump's multiple attempts to stifle the investigation of how Russia helped elect him.
But doing nothing was no longer an acceptable option once it was revealed that the president had attempted to coerce a foreign country — in this case, a weak one, highly dependent on our support and aid — into performing a hatchet job on a domestic political opponent. At the time, Trump was withholding some $400 million in sorely needed aid that Congress had awarded to Ukraine. If that wasn't explicit extortion, Trump's requested "favor" was an offer Ukraine couldn't afford to refuse.
Not even Richard Nixon was so bold as to categorically deny any cooperation with the congressional Watergate investigations. The showdown came when he refused to honor the Watergate special prosecutor's subpoena for Oval Office tape recordings. Eventually, he yielded to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision that compelled him to surrender the evidence of his obstruction of justice, and he resigned. In the end, he did the right thing.
While the uncertainty lasted, it was a real constitutional crisis — a grave conflict for which the Constitution provided no specific answer. Now we have another.
That Supreme Court, then as now comprising mostly Republican appointees, owed its allegiance only to the Constitution. Now, however, Trump appears to be counting on at least some of the justices, particularly Brett Kavanaugh, to extol presidential power over anything to the contrary in the Constitution.
Where Nixon's downfall was precipitated by a delegation of Republicans led by the towering conservative Barry Goldwater, who told him it was time to go, Trump is relying on his cadre of sycophants in the Senate to forgive him anything, however brazen.
For utter poppycock, there is nothing in legal history to match the claim Trump's attorney sent to Pelosi and other House leaders this week. It's mind-boggling that any lawyer who had ever read the Constitution could even write it.
"To fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch, and all future occupants of the Office of the Presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances," wrote the counsel, Pat Cipollone.
Contrary to the lawyer's claims, a vote of the whole House is not required to authorize a committee to undertake an investigation, and there is no requirement — constitutional or otherwise — to have the president's lawyers cross-examine impeachment witnesses. Members of a president's party traditionally play that role, aided by the legal counsel both parties employ at the committee level.
It is not now, nor has it ever been, the president's choice to decide what Congress can investigate. Under no imaginable circumstances is impeachment unconstitutional, because it is the precise constitutional remedy the Founders provided for real or suspected abuse of power. It is the House of Representatives, not the White House, which is fulfilling its duties to the American people, the Constitution and the future.
Writing in the "Federalist Papers," Alexander Hamilton spoke directly to the fear of presidential power, which accounted for some of the opposition to the proposed Constitution.
He spoke of the president's "liability at all times to impeachment."
"In the only instances in which the abuse of the executive authority was materially to be feared, the Chief Magistrate of the United States would, by that plan, be subject to the control of a branch of the legislative body. What more can an enlightened and reasonable people desire?"
What an enlightened and reasonable people can desire, at this moment, is to see Congress carry out its duty and the president mount a legitimate defense.
For him to defy the entire process is the ultimate example of an impeachable offense.