This editorial originally appeared on Bloomberg News.
At this point, few can doubt that President Donald Trump is headed for impeachment. Yet there’s a right way and a wrong way to conduct this momentous inquiry. On Thursday, the House took a step in the right direction.
In a sharply partisan ballot, lawmakers voted 232-196 in favor of a resolution that will establish rules for a public inquiry into the president’s actions — notably, his effort to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent. The measure was a long way from formally impeaching Trump. But its practical effect could nonetheless be profound.
For one thing, the resolution invalidates the president’s stated rationale for obstructing this probe. The White House has asserted for weeks that, absent a formal vote, the impeachment process is illegitimate, and that the executive branch is justified in withholding documents and preventing witnesses from testifying. That reasoning was legally and constitutionally dubious to begin with. Now it’s rendered null.
A second benefit is that the new rules will allow for more due process. They permit the Republican minority to call witnesses and obtain documents, and outline how the president and his lawyers can mount a defense. This will add legitimacy and transparency to the process, while also forcing Trump’s allies — who have mostly limited themselves to process complaints — to grapple with the substance of the president’s conduct and defend it on the merits.
Finally, the new rules should make future hearings more productive. They set aside 45-minute blocks in which committee staff members can question witnesses, for instance, as opposed to allotting lawmakers five minutes each to grandstand and fulminate.
Added to the weeks of closed-door fact-finding that Democrats have already conducted, these hearings could be a powerful tool for establishing the president’s guilt or innocence. With documents and testimony about his actions secured, the inquiry will have a baseline of facts to work from, and witnesses will find it harder to sidestep tough questions.
Notably, not a single House Republican joined with Democrats to endorse Thursday’s resolution. Although unsurprising, that’s disappointing, because the president’s conduct in this affair certainly warrants investigation.
However compelling the evidence, it remains highly unlikely that Senate Republicans will remove Trump from office. As they ponder their votes, though, they’ll be confronted with a mountain of facts about exactly what the president did — and they won’t be able to plead ignorance.