Representative Justin Amash made waves this week by becoming the first Republican in Congress to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump. He fired a thread of 13 tweets detailing his conclusions from reading the Mueller report, something he alleges few in Congress have done. He did not find alliance, however, with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of his closest friends in Congress, who disagreed with him on the issue of impeachment. Paul claimed the Mueller report itself was unconstitutional, or at least in violation of constitutional principle, because the entire Russia investigation was the result of a hidden FISA warrant (something Amash, as well as nearly every other self-identified libertarian, opposes). So, in this clash of prominent libertarians and close friends, who is right?
Before analysing their exact arguments, I want to make clear my understanding of the dynamic of the libertarian trio (including Representative Thomas Massie) and their goals and behaviors in Washington DC.
Amash was elected in 2010 during the Tea Party movement, and has shown great principle during the last 9 years. He comes from a swing district, and his nonpartisan approach to governance has won him multiple reelections. The GOP has not been strong enough, or perhaps motivated enough, to successfully primary him, despite his clear abandoning of party lines. On the opposite end, Senator Paul comes from a fairly red state, and while he certainly works across the aisle on policy (especially regarding foreign policy, the War on Drugs, and the Fourth Amendment), he positions himself publicly as an ally to (most) Republicans.
Unlike Amash, Paul seems to value his long-term position in Washington, and is willing to bite his tongue when he sees potential value in doing so. This includes a few bad confirmation votes on Trump appointees, in exchange for the President’s ear on foreign policy and criminal justice reform (though his influence on the former has clearly faltered since Bolton joined the administration). Thomas Massie, somewhere in between, has focused on issues he can frame as more conservative, and has stayed out of public controversy on inner-party drama, likely because of his deeply red district. His silence here is not at all surprising.
The charge that Amash primarily lays at Trump is obstruction of justice. Specifically, Amash says that the report “… identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice…” However, he never names specifics. The Mueller report does, indeed, conclude that it “… found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations…” however, it stops short of recommending prosecution in light of legal obstacles. Because the final conclusion that Amash reaches is that “Few members of Congress have read the report,” it would seem helpful to name the specifics here, because, let’s be honest, it’s a 200-page legal report. Few people, period, have read it. That said, the argument that the President obstructed the investigation is not an uncommon nor a baseless one.
Amash’s better points come in his allegations against the Washington establishment, rather than against Trump. Amash uses the last few tweets to go after fellow Republicans, and Democrats when the tables are turned, for turning a blindly partisan eye towards damaging investigations of colleagues. The best tweet from the series, in my opinion, is this one, and it needs no explanation:
While impeachment should be undertaken only in extraordinary circumstances, the risk we face in an environment of extreme partisanship is not that Congress will employ it as a remedy too often but rather that Congress will employ it so rarely that it cannot deter misconduct.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) May 18, 2019
This is what Amash has always done best, and the core behind why he is where he is now: Alone in principle in a land of partisanship.
Senator Rand Paul expressed fewer words than Amash, but said to HuffPost that “I actually think the libertarian position on the investigation is … really you should have to get a warrant before you get an American’s records.” While there technically was a warrant for surveillance of then-candidate Donald Trump, it was a FISA warrant, which Paul and Amash both have a long record of opposing, and it was based on false pretenses. This point is a common one in defense of Trump, but because it attacks the source of the investigation and does not defends the President’s behavior towards it, I can’t help but wonder if Paul’s tone would be different if the findings of the investigation were different.
Paul has good positioning in Washington. I don’t think his defense here is great, but I think it’s necessary if he wants to keep that position. People like Thomas Massie can afford to stay silent, but Rand Paul is seen as the leader of libertarianism in Washington, and thus the actions of other libertarians reflect on him. If Paul wants the things I’ve said he’s capable of getting, he has to toe the line. And if that is what he is doing, the relationship between Paul and Amash could really deteriorate from here. Thomas Massie agrees with Paul here, saying he is “180 degrees diametrically opposed” to Amash’s position, though he understands Amash is “not in the habit of wondering what the political fallout will be…”
I cannot say definitively who is right here. I think both cases are relatively weak, though as a political pragmatist I do favor Senator Paul slightly. I can say that I think both are wrong for entering this debate without a stronger case, furthering division within the libertarian movement and the Republican Party. But I certainly won’t hold this against either of them in the long run, so long as they continue to focus on crafting effective policy aimed at reclaiming our lives from government intervention.