COMMENTARY: The 'what ifs' of impeachment process

George F. Will

WASHINGTON — When the Senate acquits the president, he will launch a vindication tour proclaiming that his prosecution was persecution that validated his coveted victim status: Crybaby conservatism's leader has been tormented by unhinged elites. The entire impeachment episode might boost his re-election chances, but only slightly, because voters who are undecided about him are thin on the ground.

Nevertheless, there is more utility than futility in the impeachment trial. Because of it, this year's electorate will have pertinent information. And future presidents will have a salutary wariness.

Begin with this principle: Information is inherently good. Granted, government secrecy is sometimes necessary, and reticence, in government as elsewhere, can be a lubricant of harmony and accommodation.

Still, the general rule regarding information is: The more the merrier. The impeachment process has produced granular details about what the president did regarding Ukraine, and about his manner of doing things, and about the grifters he attracts just as magnets attract iron filings. All this is grist for the electorate's mill today, 33 weeks before the general election's voting begins in Minnesota on Sept. 18.

Furthermore, the 20 Republican senators seeking re-election this November (incumbents from Kansas, Tennessee and Wyoming are retiring) will face voters after explaining why they voted as they did concerning trial witnesses, and for or against acquittal.

Intelligent, public-spirited senators can reasonably disagree about the necessity (or, given the ocean of information that is public and undisputed, the redundancy) of witnesses. And they can differ about the applicability of the two impeachment articles. It will, however, be useful, and probably entertaining, to hear Republican senators' reasoning.

Try this thought experiment: Suppose there were term limits for Congress — six House terms, two Senate terms. Suppose that, say, one-third of the 20 Republican senators seeking re-election in 2020 were in their second and final terms. Surely, some of them, emancipated from the terror they feel when contemplating Trumpian constituents, would vote at least for witnesses to provide pertinent information (e.g., who besides the president has been lying?). Term limits are a lost cause, but this question illustrates why that is regrettable.

Both impeachment articles against the president — abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress — denote serious potential offenses, and actual offenses by this president. So, consider another thought experiment:

Given this era's low threshold for fury, Republicans, anticipating Democrats today, might have constitutionalized their indignation by charging Donald Trump's predecessor with impeachable abuses of power in waging unauthorized war in Libya, and rewriting immigration law under the guise of "enforcement discretion."

"Abuse of power" is inevitably somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Today's trial about abuses, and about obstructing Congress' investigation of them, is potentially a harbinger of the promiscuous use of impeachment. That is, a precedent for Congress' abuse of this power. However, for this reason today's impeachment might, for a while, make future presidents wary when wielding power with dubious justifications. Modern presidents, clad in the armor of imperial grandeur, are most tolerable when nervous.

Suppose, plausibly, that a President Bernie Sanders would share Woodrow Wilson's progressive impatience with the separation of powers, which Wilson considered an anachronistic impediment to energetic government. Suppose President Sanders would exercise all the discretion granted to presidents by Congress to enable presidents to run the sprawling administrative state.

President Sanders would be tempted to declare "emergencies" about this and that, and to issue executive orders "repurposing" funds appropriated for other uses. Might President Sanders hesitate to do so because of today's impeachment, which is a step toward normalizing a radical escalation of political strife?

Progressives would remove today's president to protect the country from his boundless conception of presidential power and his (consequent) disdain for Congress. They are recoiling against what progressivism has wrought, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt's theory of presidential "stewardship": Presidents may do whatever they are not explicitly forbidden to do.

So, because the presidency should be tamed, and contracted to constitutional dimensions, this impeachment can be, on balance, constructive. This is so even if acquittal has the predictable effect of further emboldening this president.

Since he entered politics in 2015, he has enjoyed immunity through profusion: His nonstop torrent of lies, distortions, slanders and historical claptrap has prevented prolonged scrutiny of anything. This has helped him weather the impeachment squall. Millions of Americans respond to yet another batch of presidential mendacities about yet another sordid presidential action by thinking: This is not news. They are, in some sense, correct.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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