How to Get Away with Murder
With some relief, American institutions are showing signs of life under unprecedented craziness, even as American citizens struggle to keep up. It is now near wartime in the States, and the first rule of going to war is that it's going to get worse before it gets better.
There is a fact. The fact that Russia tried, and succeeded, in interfering with our election. There is a fear. A fear that the Trump campaign colluded with Russians to undermine the outcome of that election. And finally, there's a suspicion of criminal behavior. The suspicion that President Trump, the beneficiary of established Russian interference, is actively trying to interfere with the investigation of one, or both, of these items.
Collusion is a very difficult crime to prove, as most people of moderate intelligence try to keep their illegal dealings under the radar. There may, in fact, have been no collusion at all. Trump might simply be so upset at challenges to his election's legitimacy, that he just wants to sweep all controversy under the rug. That isn't noble, but it also isn’t criminal. Still, it seems odd that Trump has, by all appearances, never had a serious in-depth conversation about the Russian interference, initiated an investigation about it, or even asked for a briefing by people investigating it.
What is potentially criminal is if Trump's efforts at rugsweeping rise to the level of attempting to undermine an investigation, which is of course obstruction of justice - a crime regardless of whether there was an underlying crime to cover up. And hence the revelation that the president is indeed, under investigation.
Americans tend to be peevish about obstruction of justice.
Fired FBI Director James Comey added fuel to the obstruction fire this last week, squaring off against Trump by describing events under oath to Congress that, if true, have in other cases resulted in people being convicted. He is an unlikely hero, since it was his implication of wrong doing by Hillary Clinton that many believe cost her the election.
The president is immune from civil suits while in office, to keep him (or a future her) from being bogged down by partisan chicanery. In terms of criminal charges, none have ever been leveled against a sitting president. This is untried waters, and the judicial branch could very well decide any such charges should be deferred until a president is out of office.
So here is where impeachment comes in. Impeachment does not require suspicion of any specific criminal act by the president, but can be initiated if Congress simply finds the president embarrassing or annoying - as it is certain the more centrist Republicans and all Democrats feel. In that case, the House votes to hold a trial, and the Senate then holds it. The Constitutional standard to initiate this process? High crimes and misdemeanors. The vagueness of the standard is evident. Richard Nixon was headed for impeachment because of lying, obstructing justice, and using the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies to punish his rivals. Bill Clinton was impeached for having extramarital affairs, and the Senate failed to vote to remove him from office. Andrew Johnson, in 1868, is the only other US President to ever face impeachment.
Funny thing is, a lot of people believe that the founding fathers envisioned frequent and vicious use of impeachment, roughly once a generation. They figured if the presidents were afraid of Congress, they'd be less corrupt.
At this point, many Americans must wish things would calm down a little, simply because there is so much more going on in the world that deserves attention. That's unlikely, though. When attacked, President Trump hits back twice as hard. Right now, he's being hit with a Mack truck. As president, he currently has the power to do a lot of damage. Oddly, he doesn't seem to care whether the damage he does is to himself or to others. For example, among the latest ideas floated out of the White House is the president firing the universally-applauded independent investigator, Robert Mueller. That would push even Republican allies too far, very likely, and bring this whole mess crashing to the ground more quickly.
At the same time, one gets used to it. This is called "normalization of deviance." The more frequently exceptional things happen, the less we think of them as exceptional. And that is the real danger here.
Dr. Helen Delfeld holds a doctorate in political science, specializing in women/gender studies and international politics from Rutgers University. She worked as a human rights activist and professor for over a decade before turning to public education and writing. She currently teaches political theory to inmates at a maximum security prison. Among other scholarly contributions is her book, Human Rights and the Hollow State, (Routledge, 2014). Her mother is Canadian, and even after fifty years in the US, refuses to become a US citizen.