Right before the 1980 Winter Olympics gold medal ice hockey game, United States coach Herb Brooks purportedly gave his team a pep talk for all time: “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your f-----g graves.” Somebody needs to reprise the Brooks speech for House Democrats today: “If you don’t stand up to Donald Trump’s abuse of power now, you’ll take it to your graves.”
I know, I know. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks it’s bad politics to impeach (and she just might be wrong; at best, she’s speculating). At some point, however, House Democrats need to understand that history will judge them harshly if, in pursuit of an elusive few points in public opinion polling, they turn their backs on what their own leaders -- and now Robert Mueller -- have effectively described as an obstruction of justice crime spree.
Even before today’s hearing, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler had declared that there is “very substantial evidence” Trump is “guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors” -- the precise formulation set forth in the Constitution to justify impeachment. Even Pelosi, despite her entrenched anti-impeachment position, accused Trump of “engag[ing] in a cover-up” and reportedly said she wants to see Trump “in prison.” Despite this hot rhetoric, neither Pelosi nor Nadler have authorized even an impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday, Mueller had his say and confirmed that Pelosi and Nadler have it right, at least in their words if not yet in their (in)action. Mueller already had written that the Russian state interfered with the 2016 election to help Trump win; that the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally” from that Russian interference; that “substantial evidence” exists that Trump tried to obstruct the investigation; and that the evidence “does not exonerate” Trump.
He also said several important things out loud. No, Mueller’s investigation did not exonerate Trump and did not find “no obstruction,” as Trump has endlessly -- falsely -- claimed to the American public. Yes, Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president prevented Mueller from making a determination on obstruction of justice. No, Trump did not fully cooperate with the investigation. Yes, a president can be indicted for obstruction after leaving office.
Now comes the moment of truth. Will House Democrats cower at the dated, preconceived, speculative notion that impeachment -- or even an impeachment inquiry -- might hurt them politically by a few polling points? Or will House Democrats do their constitutional duty, take a stand against an epic and unprecedented abuse of presidential power and let the political chips fall where they may? The legacy of this Congress, and our fundamental notions of accountability, hang in the balance.
Elie Honig is a CNN legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor. Follow him at @eliehonig.