For years, the United States has been wandering through uncharted territory. Now, with the opening this week of a formal impeachment investigation, the political landscape is familiar even if the eventual destination is unknown.
The presidency of Donald Trump, a real estate developer turned personal brand turned reality television celebrity, has been unusual and unprecedented. The dog-head-tilting “huh?” moments occur daily.
Then the country learned that a whistle-blower’s report about the president was being withheld from Congress by the White House in violation of a law requiring its transmission. Then, a transcript of a conversation between the president of Ukraine and President Trump was released by the White House. “I need you to do me a favor,” Trump said, then asked for dirt on a political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The full implication of such a request was obvious to those around the president. The transcripts of this call and possibly others were hidden within the government’s most secret system.
The country has entered territory made familiar in 1974 by the impeachment investigation of President Richard Nixon, known as Watergate.
As it was then, the president is characterizing himself as an innocent victim of political opponents and the press. This president is more public about his feelings and more vituperative in his partisanship than was President Nixon. Shared victimhood has reinforced a nearly unbreakable bond with Trump supporters.
As it was then, the U.S. House of Representatives has been pushed into calling formal hearings by actions that seemed political at first but have now clearly crossed into unconstitutional territory.
But now as then, the beating heart of this impeachment investigation is the oath of office that every president swears to. Keeping safe the Constitution, the laws and the people of the United States over any personal interests is what being the president must be about.
Those opposed to entering this disruptive if familiar territory contend that it is a distraction from doing the people’s business. Since Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has blocked the Senate from taking up even one of the dozens of bills already passed by the Democrat-controlled House, that argument carries little weight.
The outcome of this impeachment investigation is far from certain, as it should be. What is about to play out will feel at least a little familiar. In 1974 and now, all elected representatives have no other responsible choice.