Is the Democrats’ impeachment effort too narrowly focused?
Copy of the Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump. House Democrats announced they are pushing ahead with two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump - abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Many are debating whether the articles go far enough or if impeachment itself is the best way to beat Trump.| Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Among liberals, many centrists, and almost everyone on the left, there is agreement that Donald Trump has committed acts that merit impeachment and removal from the presidency. Given his conduct in life as a corrupt businessman, crooked real estate tycoon, serial womanizer, and outspoken racist, it was almost pre-ordained that as president he would abuse his power in one way or another…or several. Impeachment was, in a way, a predictable outcome ever since the day he took office.

But once you get past the obvious truth that he’s done things deserving impeachment and conviction, consensus starts to break down a bit. There is a divide over whether the charges being laid against Trump go far enough. There’s frustration that the Democratic leadership appears to have only gotten in gear once one of their own—Vice President Joe Biden—was the target of the criminal enterprise known as the Trump administration. And differences of opinion are expressed over whether impeachment is the best way to get him out of the White House.

There is merit to many of the varying shades of opinion expressed in these debates. But some of those who are criticizing the impeachment process that’s unfolding are still fighting the battle they wish existed rather than the one we are facing now. In the struggle for social change, it’s rare that the forces for progress can count on a terrain of struggle totally to their liking. People make their own history, however, they don’t make it as they please. We constantly fight to shape circumstances in our favor, but at a certain point we have to join the battle as it stands or risk it carrying on without us.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, talks with Rudy Giuliani in New York, July 6, 2015. The schemes of the two led to the impeachment hearings now gripping the nation. | Seth Wenig / AP

Not broad enough

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler have kept the charges against Trump to a succinct nine-page indictment limited to abuse of power for personal gain in the Ukraine bribery affair and the ensuing obstruction of Congress’ investigation of it. What about all the rest of the crimes Trump’s been committing?

What about putting migrant children in cages? What about diverting public money intended for other purposes toward construction of a racist border wall? What about his encouragement of white supremacist violence? What about using his office to funnel government business toward his family’s own empire of hotels and golf resorts? What about the long list of sexual assault allegations that have been made against him? What about his attacks on workers’ rights, the environment, health care, and more? What about the earlier election collusion and obstruction already laid out in the Mueller Report?

As Ralph Nader and Bruce Fein argue in The Nation, big abuses of power demand a big impeachment. So is the failure to include some of these other crimes in the articles of impeachment a “blunder” by the Judiciary Committee? It’s true that every one of these offenses is individually enough to disqualify Trump for office. The articles against him could have numbered in the dozens and probably only begin to scratch the surface of what he’s actually done. The convictions of his associates have been piling up, and many of his cronies are already behind bars. So certainly, there’s a lot more charges that could have been added.

More on impeachment

Impeachment: It’s not just about Trump but also deepening democracy

Giuliani’s mobster pals arrested on campaign finance violations

Why the left should care about impeachment—and support it wholeheartedly

White House makes it official: Trump is above the law

But it’s necessary to keep something in mind. No impeachment inquiry of any kind would exist without the mass mobilizations that have taken place against all those Trump offenses. Impeachment is happening today precisely because of the pressure exerted by the democratic and working-class movements that have been fighting back since the Women’s March after Inauguration Day 2017.

The charges which are being pursued against Trump might not be as broad as we’d wish, but the Ukraine bribery and the blocking of Congressional oversight are clear and easy to understand crimes. To be honest, for a vote-counter and poll-reader like Pelosi, that’s got to be part of the whole calculation around impeachment. For now, let’s take these charges and run with them—while reminding everyone of the other Trump crimes along the way. Keep on indicting him all the way to the ballot box.

No need to defend Biden

There’s also plenty of rightful indignation over the way some Democratic members of Congress are using the impeachment effort against Trump to paper over the shady dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine. Someone with no experience in the natural gas industry, no experience in eastern Europe, no knowledge of the Ukrainian language, and who’s the son of the man appointed by the U.S. president to oversee Ukraine policy doesn’t just end up on the board of a Ukrainian gas company by chance.

Even if “there is no evidence of wrongdoing” on Joe Biden’s part, the whole affair shines a spotlight on the opportunities for enrichment that are open to political elites and their hangers-on, no matter their partisan affiliation. Columnist Ryan Grim in The Intercept lays it all out in simple language when he writes: “The problem for Democrats is that a review of Hunter Biden’s career shows clearly that he…has been trading on the family name…on the implication…that giving money to a member of Joe Biden’s family wins the favor of Joe Biden.”

Democrats in Congress aren’t talking about it, but they should be. As for the rest of us, there’s certainly no need for anyone who’s in favor of getting big money out of politics to come running to the defense of the Bidens. They’ve got plenty of spokespeople and lawyers, so the left shouldn’t feel pressed to speak up for someone who “earned” $50,000 a month sitting on the board of a corrupt Ukrainian oil company that was looking to avoid prosecution.

In criticizing the Biden defense effort, however, there is a danger of playing into Trump and the GOP’s gaslighting efforts. The Republicans publicly repeat that Trump’s call to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky was “perfect” and that he did nothing wrong. But in reality, their goal is to make the American people conclude that everyone is corrupt, and therefore, what Trump did is no big deal. They don’t even really need us to believe Trump was innocent to win their case; they just need enough people to throw up their hands and not care.

Yeah, many Washington politicians are, to a greater or lesser extent, corrupt, and their family members and business associates do their best to cash in on their nepotistic connections. The efforts of Trump associates like Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Rudy Giuliani’s mobster pals Fruman and Parnas, and others to set up lucrative gigs for themselves are all a part of this. Those are the rules of the game in a political system where money buys influence and power is for sale to the highest bidder.

But none of that lets the president off the hook, and it can’t let all of us off the hook when it comes to backing this impeachment without hesitation. Trump’s crimes in this whole affair have been laid out for all to see and they warrant impeachment, regardless of what Joe or Hunter Biden may or may not have done.

So for the left and democratic movements, the opportunity exists to use impeachment to make a solid case for things like campaign finance reform, repealing the Citizens United ruling that let dark money flow into both of the two major parties’ coffers, and kicking corporations out of our elections completely. Don’t let it be just about Biden and Trump.

Impeach him now, defeat him in 2020

Finally, there are ongoing debates about whether impeachment is really the best way to deal with Trump. Bhaskar Sunkara, who edits Jacobin, wrote in a column for The Guardian: “To defeat Trump and set the stage for real social reform, progressives need to connect Trump’s shady dealings with the unfairness of economic and political life in the United States. But the impeachment proceedings are a poor venue in which to drive home that message.”

The headline of the article, which I suspect was written by an editor and not the author himself, declared: “Impeachment is a losing strategy for the left. Let’s focus on winning in 2020.” The takeaway message, if someone didn’t get past that first line, is that pushing to expand and advance the impeachment of Trump isn’t worth our time or effort at all.

Activists rally for the impeachment of President Donald Trump at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. | J. Scott Applewhite / AP

That’s not really the case Sunkara makes, but there are already discussions going on in the left corners of the Twittersphere which are taking that idea and running with it. What Sunkara actually does is make a solid argument that the hearings in Washington are doing little to push for demands like better wages, a public health care system for all, or more money for schools. Talk by congressional committee chairs is limited to a defense of “our intelligence community” and lamenting over the realization of the “worst nightmares” of our bourgeois republic’s Founding Fathers. Instead of all that, Sankara encourages us to “keep our eye on the ball,” which is the Bernie Sanders-inspired political revolution to overturn the Republican-Democrat status quo.

Columns in this newspaper, People’s World, have been arguing since the day Pelosi announced the formal inquiry that impeachment cannot be allowed to suffocate priorities like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and expanding Social Security. And with Trump’s eventual Senate trial virtually guaranteed to result in his acquittal, Sunkara is right that we can’t take our eye off the ball on all those issues. But is it really a choice between either impeaching Trump or beating him next year in the election?

The left, labor, and democratic movements cannot stand aloof from the impeachment proceedings which are at the center of the country’s politics right now. Nor should we overlook the very real impact that the successful impeachment of Donald Trump will have on the 2020 elections. At this moment, impeachment is the central battle in the fight to defend and advance democracy in this country and win the 2020 vote. It is not a matter of picking one or the other.

Condemning Trump with the permanent stain of impeachment will go a long way toward showing millions that victory is possible, that the resistance to his rule can win. Making sure that Trump does not get a second term and beating the Republican Party at every level are the primary strategic tasks facing us. At this moment, successfully impeaching Trump is a step toward achieving those goals.

No, the Democratic Party leadership—so many of whom are bought and paid for by the same corporate lobbyists as the Republicans—will not make this impeachment into an indictment of the whole corrupt U.S. system of pay-for-play politics. But impeachment is the battle before us, and it falls to those same movements that made it happen to keep that more expansive agenda of progressive change front and center.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.