If Donald Trump weren't president, he'd probably be in jail.
That's the view of a bipartisan group of hundreds of former federal prosecutors, who have signed an open letter stating that Trump's conduct would warrant criminal obstruction of justice charges if he lived anywhere except in the White House.
And yet, somehow, the accepted wisdom is that beginning impeachment hearings is not worth the risk. That argument is based on three assumptions. First, that impeachment will make Trump more popular. Second, that impeachment is worthwhile only if it actually ends with removing a president from office. And third, that Trump will lose in 2020, so voters, rather than Congress, can deliver the consequences that he deserves.
All three of those assumptions are shaky. Few Americans have actually read the Mueller report, and walking the country through all the damning material in high-profile public hearings has the potential to hurt Trump far more than the Democrats in Congress. Moreover, impeachment isn't just a tool to remove a president — it's also a way to mark a presidency with historic disapproval, thereby deterring similar conduct for future presidents. And finally, though Trump's poll numbers are abysmal now, it's entirely possible that he could get re-elected in 2020.
If he wins re-election without even enduring so much as an impeachment hearing, then that will encourage future presidents to commit corrupt or criminal acts. After all, Trump will have gotten away with it "Scott Free."
Impeachment hearings should therefore begin immediately to preserve the rule of law and protect democracy.
The brightest dividing line between democratic republics and authoritarian regimes is the rule of law. These days, just about every tinpot despot holds sham elections, so what separates dictatorship from democracy isn't just voting. It's the rule of law that gives meaning to democratic institutions. Without it, democracy is a mirage. And in functioning democracies, the idea that "nobody is above the law" isn't just a slogan.
And yet, Trump has almost certainly committed serious crimes without any consequences. The Justice Department called him "Individual-1" in court filings that implicated Trump in a criminal conspiracy. Personal checks signed by Trump as hush-money reimbursement payments constitute physical evidence that the conspiracy continued into the White House.
The New York Times published convincing evidence that Trump engaged in widespread criminal tax fraud over decades — fraud that would land anyone else in jail.
But there is also convincing evidence that Trump committed crimes to try to protect himself, a direct and dangerous challenge to rule of law. Although special counsel Robert Mueller declined to charge Trump with crimes himself, he did outline 10 instances of obstruction of justice, several of which would normally lead to indictments. The report shows that Trump tried to fire Mueller, tried to shut down the investigation and tried to abuse his authority to wield the law as a weapon against his political adversaries.
So here's a question for congressional leaders: Precisely how many crimes does someone have to commit before impeachment hearings are warranted? Does the person in question get a pass if it's three or fewer? Was there some clause in the Constitution that I missed that says it's OK for the president to direct a criminal conspiracy in certain circumstances? Is there a Federalist Paper that says the president can commit tax fraud so long as it was years ago, or that obstruction of justice is fair game so long as it happens on Twitter?
To oppose impeachment hearings now, you have to believe that the president allegedly engaging in three separate categories of criminal acts isn't serious enough to even consider impeachment. Really?
Is that the precedent we want to set? If Trump does not face impeachment hearings, then what are the consequences for his alleged criminal behavior and his blatant attempts to subvert rule of law? The answer, unfortunately, is that there would be none.
And beyond the alleged crimes, it's also not a bad idea to set a new precedent: that presidents get impeached if they actively encourage foreign attacks on U.S. elections or refuse to protect future elections from those attacks. When the Kremlin attacked our democratic process, Trump welcomed the assault, promoted it, tried to cover it up by blaming it on others and then attempted to subvert an investigation aimed at exposing the culprits. Last week, Trump even called it a "hoax" in a conversation with the chief perpetrator of the attack, Vladimir Putin. Are Republicans comfortable with setting the precedent that such behavior is acceptable?
Congress has a duty to act. Legislators should at least consider removing a president who threatens rule of law, violates it himself and actually encourages foreign attacks on our democratic process. Even if House Democrats decide not to impeach him or Senate Republicans vote to keep him in office, there will be a clear marker for future presidents: Committing crimes, subverting rule of law and welcoming foreign attacks on the democratic system are all unacceptable — and will result in your presidency forever being marked by a shameful asterisk.
Klaas is a Washington Post columnist and an assistant professor of global politics at University College London.