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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Congress has a duty to begin impeachment proceedings

(Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe staff; Adobe; Globe file photos)

Robert Mueller has done his job. Now it’s time for congressional Democrats to do theirs — and begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump.

From an evidentiary standpoint, this is not a hard call. The criminality and wrongdoing exhibited by the president, as laid out in the Mueller report, is overwhelming.

In damning detail, the report makes clear that Trump tried to interfere with and obstruct the Russia inquiry. Over and over, he showed a disrespect for the rule of law and a willingness to abuse presidential power that have virtually no precedent in American history.

While the president is now arguing that Mueller found “no collusion” with Russia, the report’s narrative about the Trump campaign’s actions in regard to Russian interference is nearly as bad as the special counsel’s conclusions about obstruction of justice.

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The Trump campaign made no effort to dissuade Russian electoral interference or to alert the FBI to repeated inquiries from Russian figures. Instead, it actively sought to profit from Moscow’s meddling. It is not an exaggeration to say that, during the 2016 campaign, the material interests of candidate Trump and a foreign government that illegally interfered in the most scared of democratic acts — a presidential election — were one and the same.

That may not technically be a crime, but it’s unpatriotic, immoral, and impeachable.

To turn a blind eye to these affronts to the rule of law and democratic norms would be an abdication of Congress’s responsibility to support and defend the Constitution. If Trump’s actions don’t rise to the level of impeachment, then we might as well remove that provision from the Constitution.

There is, however, a perception among leading Democrats that the politics of impeachment will favor the president. The example cited is the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. Since Republicans fared poorly in midterm elections that year, so the argument goes, history will repeat itself, and punishing Trump will motivate his angry base of supporters. Voters, the critics argue, are not interested in impeachment. They want Democrats to focus on issues like health care, gun control, and the economy. Then there is the strong likelihood that even if Democrats do impeach Trump, the GOP-controlled Senate will never convict him. So what would be the point?

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It’s worth parsing these examples, one by one.

First, while Democrats minimized their losses in the 1998 midterms, Republicans still continued to control the House of Representatives and the Senate. Two years later, in the 2000 election, Republicans held on to the House, the Senate, and won the presidency. One could argue that the damage done to Clinton — and the Democrats — by impeachment spurred the GOP’s success in taking back the White House.

Second, Clinton was a relatively popular president accused of crimes that most Americans did not believe warranted him being forced from office. Today, not only is Trump unpopular, but the level of criminal wrongdoing is also far greater and not open to nearly the same debate that it was with Clinton.

Finally, there is certainly evidence that the electorate is not interested in impeachment. Reports from the Democratic campaign trail suggest that candidates are receiving few questions about Mueller and Russia. In the recent midterm elections, Democrats ran and won by focusing on health care and the economy — not by rhetorically bludgeoning Trump.

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Elements of this final argument might be true. But it shouldn’t matter.

America is and has always been a country of laws — our founding creed is based not on race or ethnicity but rather the Constitution. And as Mueller makes clear in his report, “Congress has the authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”

Congress has not just the authority, but also the obligation, to act. Doing otherwise would mean saying, in effect, that there should be no accountability for a president who repeatedly and brazenly has broken the law. It would leave the door open for future presidents to act in similar ways, confident that they will face no opprobrium from a coequal branch of government.

One of the key responsibilities of Congress is to conduct oversight of the executive branch. If Congress refuses to carry out that constitutionally mandated duty, it would, in effect, be taking off the table the most effective tool lawmakers possess to hold presidents accountable — and prevent them from abusing their power. Failing to move forward with impeachment would fundamentally weaken Congress as an institution and cede even more power to the executive branch.

Even if the Republican-controlled Senate, led by majority leader Mitch McConnell, chooses to give Trump a pass, impeachment in the House would send a powerful signal that presidents cannot break the law and rely on compliant political allies to avoid the consequences.

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From a political standpoint, if House Democrats use impeachment hearings to highlight the evidence of his malfeasance, what reason is there to believe that it won’t rebound negatively against those Republicans who continue to defend the president’s grossly unethical and illegal behavior? Democrats spent the last two years effectively making the case for a Democratic House. Surely they can make the case for impeaching Trump and at the same time increase the political pressure on Republicans for defending him.

At the least, they should remember that voters elected them, in part, to hold the line against a lawless president.

For too long in America, we have tacitly accepted the idea that political officials and elites can break the law with impunity. It would be too divisive to punish those responsible for torture, warrantless wiretapping, and a misbegotten war in the Middle East. Prosecuting business leaders who contributed to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression would be too difficult, or so the arguments went.

Enough is enough. Congress can no longer look the other way.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.