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What Justin Amash can teach Nancy Pelosi

When it comes to impeachment, congressional Democrats are missing the point

While Justin Amash is going out on a limb, Nancy Pelosi is parsing words. The contrast is striking, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)
While Justin Amash is going out on a limb, Nancy Pelosi is parsing words. The contrast is striking, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams and Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)

OPINION — At worst, Justin Amash will be the answer to a trivia question about which House member bucked a president of his own party to call for impeachment. At best, Amash will someday be hailed as prescient in trying to save the Republican Party from being Donald Trump’s devoted, yet unprincipled, enablers.

Amash’s decision to endorse impeachment was prompted (as he tweeted) by being a rare legislator who actually read the Mueller report. And as a dedicated libertarian who has been a longtime Trump critic, this lonely position fits Amash’s political persona.

But there is another factor that may help explain why Amash sees Trump’s obstruction of justice as an impeachable offense while almost all other Republicans are repeating the mantras of “No collusion” and “Case closed.”

Growing up around Grand Rapids, Michigan, Amash was steeped in the legacy of home-town hero Jerry Ford. The Ford Presidential Museum is admirably frank about Richard Nixon’s high crimes that drove him from office in 1974. And Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon (unpopular though it was at the time) helped bind the wounds from the nation’s only forced presidential resignation.

Amash’s loneliness within the Republican Party was best captured not by the angry Trump tweets calling him a “lightweight” and a “loser” but rather by the verbal contortions of Mitt Romney. Appearing Sunday on CNN, the 2012 GOP nominee praised Amash’s “courageous statement” and then quickly added, “I don’t think impeachment is the right way to go.”

Remember that the 72-year-old Romney occupies perhaps the safest Senate GOP perch from which to defy Trump.

Up for re-election in 2024 (when Trump is either retiring or fuming over his political fate at one of his golf resorts), Romney’s future is independent of the 45th president. Also, Utah is a state where anti-Trump conservative sentiment was so intense that GOP protest candidate Evan McMullin received 22 percent of the 2016 vote.

Having made hundreds of millions as a venture capitalist, Romney does not to worry about feeding his family as a lobbyist if he ever left the Senate.

Yet the best that Romney could muster in the face of Amash’s apostasy was that single word “courageous.” And, while I’m not privy to the inner workings of Romney’s psyche, I would bet that the Utah senator felt pretty brave himself over his choice of that adjective.

When it comes to impeachment, congressional Democrats are also more likely to be parsing words than sailing forward as Captain Courageous. A Roll Call survey of the 24 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee produced some impressive feats of rhetorical jujitsu.

Chairman Jerry Nadler (who represents a militantly liberal district, mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan) suggested, “Impeachment is a decision for down the road.” Describing impeachment as a “political act,” Nadler added, “It depends where the American people are, whether they want to go that way or not.”

How long does Nadler intend to kick the can down the West Side Highway? For three years? For five years? For as long as it takes Mitt Romney to develop political courage?

Hakeem Jeffries, another New Yorker with a safe seat, echoed the House Democratic leadership: “The standard that has been articulated by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi remains clear: The evidence should be compelling, the case overwhelming, and impeachment should be bipartisan in nature, in terms of public sentiment.”

Sign Jeffries up for another seat in the “Waiting for Mitt” caucus.

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It is hard to beat seven-term Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen for trying to please everyone in the impeachment debate. “I’m in both camps,” he told Roll Call. “I support the leadership and I understand where Speaker Pelosi is coming from … but I think [Trump] has committed impeachable offenses and ought to be impeached.”

Cohen is right, though. For all the caution of Pelosi, Nadler and other Democratic leaders, it is time to begin setting up impeachment hearings.

It has taken me a long while to come around to this position. The model I preferred was established by the Senate Watergate Committee 46 years ago this month, when America was riveted by the nationally televised inquiry into what did Nixon know and when did he know it.

But Trump — channeling his own inner Roy Cohn with a dash of Roger Stone added in — could give Nixon lessons in stonewalling Congress. The scorched-earth resistance extends from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defying a House subpoena to hand over the president’s tax records to Trump lawyers refusing Monday to allow former White House counsel Donald McGahn to testify on obstruction of justice.

Mnuchin, who is not a lawyer, has no legal right to reject a subpoena from the House Ways and Means Committee simply because he sniffed, “It lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.” But impeachment is explicitly enshrined in the Constitution — and it is one of the unquestioned powers of the House of Representatives.

House Democrats are fuming and sputtering over their subpoenas being reduced to confetti as they wait for definitive rulings from the courts. But beginning an impeachment inquiry appears to be the only way to prevent Trump from trying to run out the clock.

The Pelosi view has always been that impeachment is a distraction from the accomplishments that House Democrats plan to present to the voters in 2020. Of course, few of those accomplishments will have survived Mitch McConnell and the GOP Senate.

But it is an illusion to believe that Trump’s record and his misconduct in office will not dominate the 2020 elections. Everything these days is a referendum on Trump — and House Democrats cannot avoid this reality with mealy-mouthed words on impeachment.

Justin Amash recognizes this reality. Amid the subpoena wars, hopefully Pelosi and Nadler will soon come around.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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