One of the hard things about reporting on politics these days—besides the insomnia and constant sense of dread and impotent outrage—is that the news changes faster than you can type. I spent all day Tuesday asking Democrats at the Center for American Progress’ Ideas Conference when they’d be ready to start calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment. As I sat down to start writing, the New York Times revealed that Trump had pressured fired FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser. Democrats who were reluctant to broach the I-word a few hours ago might now be feeling differently; speaking on CNN this evening, Angus King, the independent senator from Maine, said that if the Times report was true, impeachment would be on the table.
Many Americans think it should have been on the table already. According to a new survey from Public Policy Polling, a plurality of voters—48 percent—want to see Donald Trump impeached. Only 43 percent of voters think he will serve his full term, compared with 45 percent who do not.
There is much we don’t know about Trump and Russia, but we do know that he fired the FBI director to quash the investigation, and that he revealed highly classified Israeli intelligence to Russia. If a Democratic president had done these things, there is no question that Republicans would be howling for his or her head.
Much of the Democratic base is frustrated at the disconnect between the severity of our political crisis and the restrained language of their representatives. That’s one reason that California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, one of the few Democrats to openly discuss impeachment, has become a minor folk hero. “Some people don’t even want to mention the word,” she told me on Tuesday. “It’s almost as if it’s too grandiose an idea. It’s too hard to do, just too much to think about. I don’t see it that way.”
It’s not that other Democrats don’t want to see Trump impeached. But Democratic officials are still hoping for at least some Republican cooperation in building a case against Trump, and so are reluctant to prejudge the outcome of any investigation. “Right now, the fight is to get the facts,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon told me. “That’s why we’re pushing hard for an FBI director who is absolutely non-partisan, fully competent, and aggressive and bold, and why we’re fighting for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom and be able to follow the facts where they take us.”
Yet even if we don’t have all the facts—or even most of them—isn’t there already enough in the public record to make a case for impeachment? “Obstruction of justice is a very big charge to level, and there’s no prosecutor that has the standard of proof necessary today,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told me. “That’s why we’re going to continue asking questions.”
Essentially, Democrats are approaching the Trump implosion like lawyers, not champions of the resistance. Their goal is to see Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Russia scandal who will assemble the evidence that might, perhaps, at the end of a deliberate process, allow the country to rid itself of Trump. This may well be a sensible approach, particularly since Democrats don’t control any of the levers of power. But it’s a slow one, and it leaves many progressives feeling leaderless, like no one is rising to the occasion of this epic disaster of a presidency.
“The House has limited means, but definitely in the Senate, they should be throwing up roadblocks to everything,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas said of elected Democrats. “There is nothing that should be going through that Senate without Republicans having to fight. I don’t care if it's the morning prayer. Everything should be a fight. And until that happens, Democrats are complicit in enabling this Republican regime.”
Democrats aren’t willing to go down the path of total obstruction yet, but they’re getting closer. Rosenstein is briefing senators about Comey’s firing on Thursday. If he doesn’t agree to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump Russia scandal, senators might at last summon the will to grind business to a halt. “I’m prepared to take extraordinary steps, slowing up the processes on the Senate floor, in order to force Republicans to get serious about appointing a special prosecutor,” Murphy said.
Given how often Trump has gotten away with transgressing political norms, ignoring the law, and violating minimal standards of human decency, Democratic voters have had to struggle, over the past several months, not to succumb to fatalism. But we may have now finally, finally, reached a tipping point. Before Tuesday evening’s revelations, I asked Merkley whether he thought Trump would serve his full term. “I think the odds are modest at best,” he said. After four months that have felt like four years, it feels like we’ve finally arrived at the beginning of the end.