Why the question of Trump’s impeachment can’t wait for Election Day

About a month ago, at the start of the most recent Democratic presidential primary debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper began the event by posing a familiar question to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “You have said that there’s already enough evidence for President Trump to be impeached and removed from office. But the question is, with the election only one year away, why shouldn’t it be the voters who determine the president’s fate?”

In a new interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell, former Ambassador Nikki Haley, made a related argument:

“I think the biggest thing that bothers me is the American people should decide this. Why [do] we have a bunch of people in Congress making this decision?”

Those familiar with American Civics 101 probably realize the reason “a bunch of people in Congress” are working on an impeachment inquiry is because that’s how the process is supposed to work under the U.S. Constitution. What’s more, we have “a bunch of people in Congress” grappling with how to address presidential abuses because “the American people” decided to put the House of Representatives in the hands of a Democratic majority – made up of members who ran on a platform of holding Trump accountable.

I’m going to assume that Haley, a former top member of Donald Trump’s team, knows all of this. I’ll also assume that the point she intended to make was about delaying judgment on the president’s apparent misconduct until Election Day 2020. Indeed, the former South Carolina governor added on Twitter over the weekend, “This is a decision for the American people.”

It’s an increasingly popular pitch in GOP circles. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who’ll retire from elected office next year, recently argued, “An election, which is just around the corner, is the right way to decide who should be president.” Similarly, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, added yesterday, “Let the American people decide this in less than a year.”

At face value, this may seem like one of the GOP’s less ridiculous arguments. Trump was caught crossing the line, and if voters have a problem with the president’s abuses, they can vote for someone new next November. If, on the other hand, voters are unmoved, the electorate can make that clear, too.

There are, however, a couple of serious flaws with this.

NBC News’ First Read team published an item in September about the Ukraine scandal, just as it was starting to break, that stuck with me:

If this is what this looks like … then it’s arguably worse than Watergate, when the dirty tricks were being conducted by Americans against Americans. But this time, is the dirty trick a sitting president dangling aid to a foreign country to get it to investigate a rival campaign?

We learned from 2016 that the Trump campaign will do whatever it takes to win. Do national Democrats – who believe defeating Trump in 2020, not impeaching him, is the best way to remove him from office – understand what else we might see over the next 14 months?

The Trump campaign will do whatever it takes to win. That, in a nutshell, is why the scandal can’t wait. One of the key pillars of the whole controversy has been a simple fact: Trump intended to cheat in the election by way of an extortion scheme. The president, rightly or wrongly, saw Joe Biden as a credible electoral threat, which led him to push a vulnerable foreign ally to cook up some dirt Republicans could use before Election Day.

To let this go unpunished is to effectively encourage the president who knows no limits, and believes there can be no checks on his misconduct, to keep exploring other cheating options.

The broader national goal should be to ensure that the United States has a free and fair election next year. Trump has already taken steps that are fundamentally at odds with that goal.

It’s not as if the president has rolled out some kind of “mea culpa” defense, acknowledging poor judgment, and assuring the public that he intends to stop trying to screw around with the 2020 cycle. On the contrary, Trump has done largely the opposite, insisting his actions were “perfect,” permissible, and literally unimpeachable.

As New York’s Jon Chait recently put it, “Using his foreign-policy authority to leverage dirt on Americans who oppose him is not a mistake, it is Trump’s ongoing campaign strategy. Either he will be removed from office over it, or he will use that strategy to try to win reelection.”

To ask “the American people” to decide the proper resolution is to assume the president intends to play fair over the next 12 months. Trump has already made it painfully obvious that he has a very different plan in mind.