Editorial: Thoughts to ponder as impeachment unfolds and Congress is challenged

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Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

There are many questions to sort through as Congress begins this impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. For one, did Trump use his best Marlon Brando impersonation when uttering to the Ukrainian president, “I would like you to do us a favor, though …”

The answer to that question is probably less known than this one: Will the U.S. Senate convict Trump in an impeachment trial? As it stands now, such a conviction is unlikely. It is worth remembering that the most consequential political event of the next two years is still likely to be the elections, not an impeachment. Opponents of the president forget that at their own peril.

But, the key phrase in all of this is “as things stand now.” Washington is not standing still, at the moment. Pragmatists, including on this page, have argued against impeachment because the likelihood of a conviction seems low. But perhaps the winds — or, more importantly, the poll numbers of Republican voters — will change as more information emerges. If polls show Republican voters are becoming discouraged with the president, it won’t take long for his congressional supporters to change course. All politicians come equipped with power steering. They can turn quickly.

Still, it seems dangerous for Trump opponents to invest all their energy into impeachment. The inquiry is important — not just for today but for the statements it will make about presidential powers for the future. Attention must be paid to the impeachment proceeding, but work should be underway on other fronts to ensure that our future republic is truly governed by three equal branches of government. Here are three topics — one related to impeachment and two not — that deserve attention.

Quid pro quo: Whenever politicians start speaking Latin, watch out. Currently there is much discussion about whether there was a quid pro quo when Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate a matter involving Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden. Why does quid pro quo matter? It doesn’t. The public and lawmakers should cut through that noise. Consider this: If you ask somebody to rob a bank in exchange for something you’ll give him, you’ve done something wrong. If you ask someone to rob a bank without offering him anything in return, it may be a much less effective request, but it is no less wrong. Focus on what matters. Was Trump asking the Ukrainian president to rob a bank for him?

Contempt of Congress: A big issue at stake is whether Congress has the ability to be a co-equal branch of government anymore. More so than impeaching the president, that is the mark that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can leave that will benefit generations to come. Congress’ role as an equal branch is at stake because the executive branch feels empowered to ignore requests for information from congressional oversight committees. Congress can hold such officials in contempt, but contempt prosecution is handled by the Justice Department, which is controlled by the executive branch. When the contempt charge involves a member of the executive branch, there is an inherent conflict. The solution may be for Congress to use its “inherent contempt” powers. In short, Congress can hold people in contempt, hold its own trial on the contempt charge and assess penalties including jail time and perhaps a fine. The practice hasn’t been used for decades. If Congress has its Sergeant at Arms arrest the attorney general, a constitutional crisis probably ensues. But it doesn’t have to start there. Pelosi could announce she is negotiating an agreement with the Washington, D.C., police department for jail and enforcement services related to congressional contempt proceedings. Monitor the reactions and any change in tone from those asked to lawfully produce information.

Charles Koch: The Kansas billionaire and Republican Party financier has indicated, at times, that he doesn’t like the direction Trump is taking the party. But will he get serious about funding primary opponents for those members of Congress who toe the Trump line? The biggest power Trump has over Republican lawmakers is the threat of a primary opponent. Trump is very formidable in this area. Koch used to be. Koch doesn’t need to win every battle against the president. Winning just a few would send a powerful message. There are Republicans who say they want to fight Trump’s takeover of their party. If they are serious, they likely should be bending the ear and massaging the wallet of men like Koch more so than they are today.

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