Just Say No To Impeachment (For Now)
In the end, Impeachment is a political act more than a legal one. For that reason, Democrats should not pursue impeachment unless they have a reasonable chance of winning.
Presidential historian Mike Purdy makes points about the ongoing debate among Congressional Democrats, pundits, and others about whether or not the House of Representatives should pursue impeachment against President Trump:
The Constitution permits impeachment in the event of “treason, high crimes and misdemeanors.” But, as Gerald Ford once wisely noted, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” In other words, impeachment is not only a legal determination, but ultimately a political decision.
Even though both special counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr both concluded there was not enough evidence to officially indict the president for collusion or obstruction of justice, such a conclusion was undoubtedly influenced by a longtime Justice Department policy that a sitting president could not be indicted. Mueller recognized the political nature of his investigation and has passed the baton to Congress to make a political decision.
The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives faces a genuine dilemma of whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump. The impeachment undercurrent has been alive since Trump’s inauguration. But with the fresh details revealed in the Mueller report, the issue is now front and center. The report described numerous instances of the president attempting to squash or thwart the investigation.
The Mueller report is deeply disturbing to many who have read it after removing their partisan glasses. Surprisingly though, among prominent Republicans, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has stood almost alone in bemoaning the behavior of the president described in the report: “I am sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President. I am also appalled that, among other things fellow citizens working in a campaign for president welcomed help from Russia.”
It is telling that other Republicans, whose support would be necessary in the Senate to convict and remove the president from office, have not spoken up to condemn the president’s questionable actions. The lack of a bipartisan consensus is something the House must seriously weigh when deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against the president.
If the Democratic majority in the House impeaches the president without broad political consensus in the Senate (and country) to convict the president and remove him from office, impeachment will be weaponized by the president in the 2020 campaign. Trump will argue that liberal Democrats and the news media are out to get him, that he has done nothing wrong, and that you can’t impeach a president who has done a great job. This mantra will play well with his loyal base.
Democrats should never underestimate the president’s genius in branding, marketing, and creating his desired narrative with memorable and constantly repeated tweets. In other words, impeachment without conviction would play into the president’s hands and allow him a potential path to win a second term.
To impeach or not to impeach both have strong arguments in their favor. Ultimately, however, because impeachment is a political process, Democrats should be very cautious about instigating impeachment proceedings against the president because to do so may result in Trump winning a second term in the White House.
Between the two extremes of impeaching or not impeaching the president is a third option that seems to be the direction of many in Democratic leadership in the House. Under that option, which recognizes that there needs to be broad consensus in the both the House and the Senate before moving forward with impeachment, Democrats would continue to investigate the president, subpoena records and individuals to testify and assess the extent of the president’s potentially impeachable offenses. If the results of those investigations shock the country — Democrats and Republicans alike — then the House should move forward with impeachment.
The impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both politically motivated. Richard Nixon resigned after Senate Republicans turned on him and told him that with new Watergate revelations, he would be convicted and removed from office by the Senate. Based on the volume and nature of the evidence uncovered in the Mueller investigation, the president’s potentially impeachable offenses are far more egregious than anything Johnson or Clinton did, and even Nixon’s corrupt presidency looks amazingly tame by comparison.
Without a broad consensus, the mood of the nation may be more interested in having the newly elected Democratic majority pass significant and important legislation to improve the lives of all Americans, recognizing the unfortunate reality that the Senate will not even take up such legislation.
Especially relevant to Purdy’s argument here is the fact that polling has indicated that the American public does not want to see Congress pursue impeachment at this time. To be sure. the same polling shows that there is significant support for impeachment among Democrats just as there is significant opposition to it among Republicans. Crucially, this same polling currently shows that a majority of self-identified Independents say they are opposed to impeachment at this time. Additionally, Congressional Democrats who have spent the current recess back home attending town halls and other meetings with constituents have found little support for immediate moves to impeach the President even among Democrats. Instead, these voters want to see Congress focused on health care reform and other issues of importance to the average voter. This is also likely the reason behind the recent comments by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that it isn’t worth pursuing impeachment given the fact that there’s no real chance that the Senate will vote to convict and remove the President from office.
Purdy, of course, is absolutely right. While Democrats may be correct that the Mueller Report and other things we already know about President Trump. such as the fact that he conspired with Michael Cohen to violate campaign finance laws, provides a strong argument for at least considering impeachment, the fact remains that doing so now with just eighteen months left before the 2020 General Election when it’s obvious that Trump will end up winning in the end would be a huge political gamble by Democrats.
One possible outcome is that the impeachment process and the information that is made public in a trial damages Trump to such a degree that he ends up being far too tainted a candidate to win re-election. Based on past experience, though, it seems far more likely that the actual outcome will be that Trump will emerge from an unsuccessful impeachment and trial energized. that his base will be energized, and that Democrats and their supporters will be demoralized. This would be precisely the kind of scenario that Trump would like to see heading into an election where based on polling and job approval numbers, he has a serious fight ahead of him if he’s going to be re-elected.
As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that Democrats should let up the pressure on the Trump Administration:
[T]he better strategy for Democrats right now is to proceed forward with investigations into the matters discussed above and to do so in as public a manner as possible. Let all the information that can come out be made public unless it is classified. Let the American people decide at the next election what they want to do with that information. This seems like an even wiser strategy given the fact that it is unlikely that any investigations in the House will be completed until we’re nearly on the eve of the 2020 election. At that point, the question will be whether to proceed with impeachment or take the strategy I have laid out here and let the people decide. Unless the evidence against the President is overwhelming, it seems to me that the decision should lean heavily in favor of putting this matter to the test at the ballot box rather than attempting an impeachment and removal that will not succeed and which could end up energizing Trump and his base when the President is ultimately acquitted in the Senate.
It’s possible that those investigations will yield information that will lead to overwhelming support for impeachment, or that it might somehow convince 20 Republican Senators that the evidence requires that Trump be removed from office. If that happens, then Democrats should proceed accordingly. Right now, though, they ought to put talk of impeachment to the side, continue with the investigations even if it means fighting with the Administration in court over subpoenas and document requests, and let the evidence that is or may be uncovered speak for itself. Prematurely moving forward with impeachment at this time will only likely energize Trump and his base ahead of 2020, and that’s the last thing Democrats should be doing.