The Political Reality Of Impeachment

While the drumbeat for impeachment of the President continues on the left, political reality suggests caution.

In his latest Washington Post column, George Will cautions against pursuing impeachment against President Trump, arguing that such a move would be a “political debacle”:

If congressional Democrats will temper their enthusiasm for impeachment with lucidity about the nation’s needs and their political self-interest, they will understand the self-defeating nature of a foredoomed attempt to remove a president for aesthetic reasons. Such reasons are not trivial but they are insufficient, particularly when almost all congressional Republicans are complicit in, by their silence about, President Trump’s comportment.

Impeachment can be retrospective, for offenses committed, or prospective, to prevent probable future injuries to the nation. Greg Weiner is a Madison scholar par excellence and author of a new book on a subject — prudence — that Democrats should contemplate (“Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence“). Elsewhere, he writes this about what he calls “one of the Constitution’s most solemn powers”:

“The purpose of impeachment is not punitive. It is prophylactic. Criminal law looks backward toward offenses committed. The object of impeachment is not to exact vengeance. It is to protect the public against future acts of recklessness or abuse.”

(…)

As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 65, impeachable offenses should “relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” Trump’s incessant lying and increasingly contemptible coarseness are as reprehensible as was President Richard M. Nixon’s surreptitious criminality. And — because they are constant, public and hence desensitizing — they will inflict more long-term damage to America’s civic life than Nixon’s misdeeds did.

But Democrats should heed Weiner: “That an offense is impeachable does not mean it warrants impeachment.” Potential impeachers must consider “the general political context of the times,” including “the potential public reaction.” Democrats should face two lamentable but undeniable facts: Trump was elected because many millions of Americans enjoy his boorishness. And he essentially promised to govern as a lout. Promise-keeping would be an unusual ground for impeachment.

Furthermore, impeachment will not result in Trump’s removal. Consider today’s supine behavior of most congressional Republicans, which stirs fragrant memories of the vigorous obedience of many members of the U.S. Communist Party to Stalin in the late 1930s. Until Aug. 23, 1939, Stalin wanted, so the CPUSA advocated, U.S. engagement in European resistance to Hitler’s expansionism. However, when on that date Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact as a prelude to carving up Poland, the CPUSA instantly pivoted to advocating U.S. noninvolvement in Europe’s affairs. Then on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and the CPUSA lurched back to advocating maximum U.S. engagement in resistance to Hitler.

Most congressional Republicans today display a similar versatility of conviction. They were for free trade until Trump informed them that they were not. They were defenders of the U.S. intelligence community until Trump announced in Helsinki that he believed Vladimir Putin rather than this community regarding Russian support for his election. They excoriated wishful thinking regarding North Korea until Trump spent a few hours with Kim Jong Un and, smitten, tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Republicans have moved from stressing presidential dignity to cowed silence when, to take only the most recent example, Trump endorsed a North Korean state media outlet’s ridicule of “low IQ” Joe Biden (a taunt Trump falsely ascribed to Kim). Republicans railed against President Barack Obama’s executive overreaching but are eloquently mute when Obama’s successor promiscuously declares “emergencies” in order to “repurpose” funds Congress appropriated for other purposes, and to truncate the process of congressional approval of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

CPUSA members in the 1930s, blinkered by ideology, had a servile faith in a Soviet regime that they identified with historic (and therefore progressive) inevitabilities.

Today’s congressional Republicans, blinded by their puppy-like devotion (and leavened by terror of the capricious master to whom they are devoted), would make a Senate impeachment trial a partisan debacle ending in acquittal.

What Will is saying, in far better language than I could muster, is basically similar to the position I have taken with regard to impeachment as reflected in my posts in April and last week. As I’ve said in those posts, the arguments in favor of impeachment can be found fairly easily in the Mueller report itself, and in the numerous other allegations of wrongdoing that have been made against the President. Most certainly, these charges deserve to be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated, in public, with the results of those investigations being made available to the American people. Additionally, the case in favor of impeachment has been made quite strongly by, among others Congressman Justin Amash, the sole Republican to speak out against the President.(see here, here, and here). Despite that, actually pursuing impeachment may not be an advisable course of action.

In this case, as I have said repeatedly, it is apparent that there will not be sufficient support in the Senate to convict and remove the President regardless of what the charges or the evidence may be. The result would be the same as what we saw in the previous two Presidential impeachments of President Johnson and President Clinton, impeachment by the House and acquittal by the Senate. Indeed, many of the “jurors” who would hear the trial of the President have apparently already made up their mind on the matter.

This would be an acquittal that would take place on the eve of the Presidential election and could arguably lead to the President and his base being energized while the opposition would be disheartened after what would obviously be a long process that would make the current political divide over the Trump Presidency even wider than it already is. It would also potentially defeat the goal that those of us who oppose this President, which includes George Will, have at the front of our minds, getting him out of office by the most expeditious process possible under the Constitution. Under the Constitution and taking into account the political realities that we’re faced with, at this point that means defeating him at the ballot box in 2020. The ongoing investigations are an important part of that process, of course, but we should not be deceived into thinking that impeachment, as tempting as it is and as delicious as it would be to see this President on trial, is going to accomplish that goal because, under current circumstances, it isn’t.

Will’s analysis here largely mirrors my own thoughts on the issue of impeachment which I have expressed here and here. While I don’t dismiss the seriousness of the evidence against the President, the fact of the matter is that impeachment is, in the end, a political act and Democrats in the House would be wise to keep that in mind. As I’ve noted before, 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, though, 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.

As I’ve said before, none of this should be taken to mean that Congress should stop investigating the President. In fact, it indicates quite the opposite. For the first two years of the Trump Presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress basically did nothing in response to the reports about wrongdoing by the Trump campaign, by the President in his private affairs, or by the Administration. It was in no small part due to this failure that Republicans suffered historic losses in the House of Representatives that caused them to lose more seats than they had since the elections that took place just three months after President Nixon resigned in 1974. In that sense, Democrats have a duty to act where Republicans refused to. If the evidence begins to point toward impeachment, and especially if the Administration continues to stonewall legitimate Congressional inquiries and requests for documents, then it may become necessary to open a formal Impeachment inquiry in the Judiciary Committee. Before heading down that road, though, Democrats should proceed carefully.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Impeachment, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Tom Daschle has an op-ed in the WaPo this morning saying pretty much the same thing. Taking a drastically different view Ted Rall has an op-ed in the WSJ this morning saying that progressives would rather have Trump in the White House than Biden.

  2. If the only reason to impeach is when removal is guaranteed, Will (and Doug) have a point.

    If impeachment itself can be seen as a legitimately useful outcome, then that changes the argument and calculus.

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  3. Tony W says:

    If Trump’s breathtaking corruption, graft, obstruction of justice, ocean of lies and deceit, and blatant nepotism do not meet the bar for impeachment hearings, I’d like to hear Speaker Pelosi’s description of a president that she’d investigate.

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  4. Joe says:

    It occurs to me that impeachment was intended to allow Congress, as one branch of government, to stop the ongoing (in the view of Weiner) malfeasance of the Executive, another branch. But when Congress, or at least the Senate, is actively participating in that malfeasance, a conviction is no more likely to occur than one co-criminal is likely to voluntarily turn on his fellow co-criminal. Prior to the new House, even impeachment was off the table, because the Republican House was similarly complicit in the behavior.

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  5. Kathy says:

    We should not settle into false dichotomies. The options are not a) impeach El Cheeto or b) do nothing. at least there is one more, c) conduct investigations through oversight and see where that leads.

    Nor is Dennison’s support immutable (nothing is). Remember Bush the elder was so popular early in 1991, with voters in both parties, that his reelection seemed assured. A recession, and a primary challenge, and a quirky independent candidate sunk him.

    This is not to say the same can or will happen with Trump. But it shows even a popular president with a real accomplishment can stumble badly.

    Besides, Dennison is massively unpopular outside the GOP, so he can’t loose any of the support eh has. An investigation may not sway enough Republicans to remove him in a Senate trial, but it may reduce enough of his support to cost him reelection.

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  6. Modulo Myself says:

    The Republican response is baked into impeachment, and it’s part of why it should be done. Make these people go on record, make them blubber about dossiers and the Deep State. They’re the people happy to use the census to disenfranchise minority voters. (I’m very doubtful the Supreme Court will go for pesky little things like ‘evidence’.)

  7. gVOR08 says:

    I agree with you, Doug, and Pelosi, that the House should impeach only if there is a clear cut offense. We need an offense striking enough to turn public opinion and to get the GOPs in the Senate to consider doing their duty, or at least strong enough to embarrass them if they don’t. I hope that a pattern of two bit corruption at every turn might be sufficient, but I fear a smoking gun is necessary.

    However, that George Will thinks we should not impeach gives me considerable pause. Where to start? His piece, even as briefly quoted above, is a target rich environment. I’ll content myself with his quote of Weiner,

    The purpose of impeachment is not punitive. It is prophylactic. Criminal law looks backward toward offenses committed. The object of impeachment is not to exact vengeance. It is to protect the public against future acts of recklessness or abuse.

    A clear statement of why ‘proven beyond a reasonable doubt’ is not an appropriate standard. ‘We think the President* is being blackmailed and bribed into serving the interests of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, but they didn’t leave a paper trail, so we’ll just have to let it go.’ Really?

  8. @Kathy:

    c) conduct investigations through oversight and see where that leads.

    The question becomes, however, can run-of-the-mill oversight work given the stonewalling of the administration or is it necessary for that oversight to be part of the more extraordinary impeachment process.

    I am to the point where, clearly, slapping the Mueller Report on a desk and then voting on impeachment would be stupid and counterproductive, but am of the mindset that at this point the House needs to open a formal impeachment inquiry.

  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I think the Democrats should wave their fists in the air some more…maybe send another letter or two.

  10. Kit says:

    Hmmm… Aesthetic reasons. Good to see old George evolving with the times. 20+ years ago, he seemed to hold a rather different opinion:

    the Constitution has always contained a provision for the removal of morally incapacitated presidents. Its impeachment provision supplies a remedy for certain kinds of political problems, such as chronic lying to the nation about chronic behavior deeply offensive to it.

    The apparent Republican consensus, perhaps principled but certainly convenient, is that the independent counsel’s investigation should be completed before any impeachment process begins. This subordinates broad concerns about the nation’s civic health and security to considerations of prosecutorial tidiness. It misses the point, which is not to punish Clinton but to end the punishment of the nation.

    It is timely to assert that the impeachment provision is open-textured enough to encompass behavior which, by disgracing a president, annihilates his capacity to function. The constitutional provision that is sufficient for removing presidents who violate this or that law is surely not impotent to cope with presidents who flagrantly violate the implicit “moral turpitude clause” in the de facto contract that presidents have with the nation.

  11. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    If impeachment itself can be seen as a legitimately useful outcome, then that changes the argument and calculus.

    The Daily Beast’s reporting suggests that part of Pelosi’s concerns is that she thinks that most people don’t understand impeachment and have unrealistic expectations about what that means. So some of this may be boiling down to doing educational work to ensure that the base’s expectation will match what will actually happen.

    The Speaker, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting, expressed concerns that the public still doesn’t understand how the process of impeachment would play out. She noted that in her time over the recess in California well educated voters didn’t seem to understand that impeachment proceedings would not necessarily result in Trump’s immediate ouster from office.

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/nancy-pelosi-wants-to-slow-walk-impeachment-dems-who-support-it-are-trying-to-recruit-other-lawmakers

    I honestly think she is probably right.

  12. Joe says:

    The question becomes, however, can run-of-the-mill oversight work given the stonewalling of the administration . . .

    But here, the rub, Steven, it is largely this stonewalling that provides the forward-looking necessity for impeachment that Weiner asks for.

  13. @mattbernius: She may have a point, and I am potentially persuadable on this POV.

    There is also the argument that she needs to work through the regular court challenges first because if she leaps to impeachment before so doing could affect the way future Congresses have to deal with recalcitrant presidents.

  14. Moosebreath says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    “The question becomes, however, can run-of-the-mill oversight work given the stonewalling of the administration or is it necessary for that oversight to be part of the more extraordinary impeachment process.”

    I am not a Constitutional lawyer, nor even an expert on subpoenas and other issues of civil procedure, but I have never understood why opening an impeachment inquiry would stop the stonewalling. Especially if the Administration has only to run the clock out for about a year.

  15. @Moosebreath:

    I am not a Constitutional lawyer, nor even an expert on subpoenas and other issues of civil procedure, but I have never understood why opening an impeachment inquiry would stop the stonewalling. Especially if the Administration has only to run the clock out for about a year.

    I am by no means suggesting it will stop the stonewalling. What is it will do, however, is increase congressional leverage in the courts (and blunt the administration’s attempt to litigate what legitimate legislative needs are). It will also change the public discussion of the stonewalling.

  16. SKI says:

    Apropos of Kit’s comment, I’m pretty sure George Will isn’t a reputable or reliable source over what the Democrats should do.

    Josh Marshall, on the other hand, presents a pretty good case for why he doesn’t support impeachment at this time.

    I continue to believe, more strongly than you can imagine, that impeaching President Trump is silly and a waste of time. That’s not because I think the politics are bad, as people always seem to assume when you say you don’t support an immediate move toward impeachment. I simply think it doesn’t accomplish anything. So it really doesn’t matter what the politics are. The only real question to me is whether Democrats succeed in their real shot at ending Trump’s presidency, which is in November 2020. It’s an existential challenge for the whole country.

    And he also posts a number of responses arguing with him that came in on the Editor’s Blog at TPM but I believe the responses all require Prime Membership to TPM.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    OK OK, George Will has changed my mind. If he is against it, we need to impeach post haste.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @SKI: I’m with Josh in taking the long view. The real problem here is not that trump remains in the WH, it’s that the Republican party more and more resembles a crime cartel. Ignoring constitutional prerogatives when it’s convenient for their party, ignoring congressional subpoenas when it’s convenient for their party, aiding and abetting Russian malfeasance when it’s convenient for their party, ignoring treaties when it’s convenient for their party, ignoring blatant Hatch act and emoluments violations when it’s convenient for their party,… It’s all just “politics” to them and their voters agree.

    That math has to change.

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  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I think this is way bigger than impeachment. The Republican party is corrupt from the top to the bottom. It is the “deep state”. It’s the party that allowed Dennison to be. It’s the party that needs to be, somehow, sanitized or cleansed.
    From stealing SCOTUS seats, to preventing people from voting, to accepting graft from foreign states…one of America’s two main political parties is a criminal enterprise. How in the world do we begin to address THAT???

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  20. al Ameda says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Taking a drastically different view Ted Rall has an op-ed in the WSJ this morning saying that progressives would rather have Trump in the White House than Biden.

    An interesting fact is that Jill Stein received more votes in both Wisconsin and Michigan than Trump’s margin over Hillary. Flip those Stein votes to Hillary and the election is really really close. It was close in Michigan, but the final tally had Trump’s victory margin greater than the Stein vote.

    I have a few neighbors who voted for Jill Stein because to them Hillary was awful. Now, to be fair, California was looking to be an easy win for Hillary, so they could ‘waste’ their vote, it was a freebie. I know that they did not look at it that way though.

    I like my neighbors but every once in a while I ask them if they like Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court. I do this because they couldn’t believe that I would vote for a corrupt pol like Hillary, and I told them that there is one reason to vote for Hillary, and that is I’d rather have her nominations to the Court than Trump’s. For me, this is not a righteous purity exercise. For my neighbors, unfortunately, it is.

  21. SenyorDave says:

    @al Ameda: Do your neighbors believe that Trump is corrupt? Have they missed the part where he and his family have been using the presidency to enrich themselves? Or before the election we knew about Trump University, his phony charity which has been since closed down? Do they actually believe that Hillary is more corrupt than Trump?

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @al Ameda:

    For me, this is not a righteous purity exercise. For my neighbors, unfortunately, it is.

    The purity of their souls is safe. You however are going to liberal sellout hell.

  23. just nutha says:

    “It will also change the public discussion of the stonewalling.”

    But will it? 43% or so of the voters are at DGAFcon 5 now because they support Trump. Another similar percentage are of the opposite persuasion. There is some percentage of 14% (because “independents” aren’t) who may or may not be all that persuadable and may or may not be impressed by another round of political kabuki theater. I’m not seeing how that group is leaning, so I can’t find myself sure of how much “public discussion” will change.

  24. Pylon says:

    Timing is key. Investigations and hearings leading up to, say, summer 2020, when an impeachment vote is held with overwhelming evidence. Then let the Senate either convict (disaster for Republicans), stall (leaving the impeachment undisturbed – disaster for Republicans) or acquit (given the amount of evidence and ad-fodder by that time over the summer – disaster for Republicans). If I’m the Republicans, I’m begging Trump to resign before election season.

  25. @just nutha:

    “It will also change the public discussion of the stonewalling.”

    But will it?

    By definition it will: all reporting on court fights will include the words “impeachment inquiry” or “impeachment investigation.” It would capture some people’s attention more than current court fights do (and would be more widely reported).

    I realize it may not change anyone’s mind (although even if it changed a a few percentage points, it could have serious implications for 2020).

  26. Kathy says:

    @Pylon:

    The GOP 2020 convention is scheduled for late August. I don’t see them voting to convict and remove Dennison by Summer 2020, even if Jesus, Mary, God, and Ronald Reagan’s Ghost appear on FOX News and urge them to do so.

    But this brings up another (highly speculative) question. Say impeachment takes place around November-December 2019, and a miracle happens and enough GOP Senators vote to remove.

    Would Dennison then drop out of the 2020 race, or would he insist his removal doesn’t affect his ability to run.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    By definition it will: all reporting on court fights will include the words “impeachment inquiry” or “impeachment investigation.” It would capture some people’s attention more than current court fights do (and would be more widely reported).

    I’m not so sure Steven. I think you think the word “impeachment” carries the same gravitas with everyone else as it does with you. Pretty sure a whole lot of people remember Monica/gate quite well and a lot fewer remember Watergate.

    Things just ain’t what they used to be.

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy:

    I don’t see them voting to convict and remove Dennison by Summer 2020, even if Jesus, Mary, God, and Ronald Reagan’s Ghost appear on FOX News and urge them to do so.

    Fake Jesus, fake Mary, fake God, fake Ronald Reagan’s ghost, fake FOX news.

  29. Jim Brown 32 says:

    The bottom line is that Congress is a failed institution. Its nothing more than a fund-raising cash cow for either Party to hold up boogey men for their base so they can raise money, sell books, pay consultants, peddle influence, leverage inside business information, rinse, repeat…for the next election season. Its nothing more than your classic self-licking ice cream cone

    Seriously, Congress rarely takes any action an anything of consequence and prefers to outsource risk for any serious vote to either and Executive action by the President of an Supreme Court decision. They MAY take ONE risk if one Party holds both Houses (ala Obamacare).

    This is untenable in the long term–the Federal Gov’t was designed to work with 3 Branches of Gov’t. The 2-Parties are essentially the 4th Branch of Gov’t with effectively no-check…not even a “shellacking” at the ballot box for an election season alters the vector and tone of a Party.

    Regarding impeachment–Dems are showing why they are a losing team and Pelosi is not the right leadership. Take a risk for Pete’s sake! I’ve said before that only a fool gets in the ring with a bare-knuckled boxer with gloves on their hands. McConnell didn’t think twice about kicking Merrick Garland in the seat of his pants–and here Pelosi is aiming for the middle of the green instead of hunting the flag. Stop overthinking it–play the card you have and cross the next bridge when you come to it.

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  30. al Ameda says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The purity of their souls is safe. You however are going to liberal sellout hell.

    Ha. I can sleep knowing that I was right in thinking that a President Hillary Clinton would not have given us Gorsuch and Kavanaugh as nominees to the Supreme Court, nor all the other chaotic bullsh** that Trump has done. If voting for Hillary, and not supporting Bernie or Jill, tags me as a liberal sellout so be it. I mean, I know I’m not a snowflake.
    @SenyorDave:

    Do your neighbors believe that Trump is corrupt? Do they actually believe that Hillary is more corrupt than Trump?

    Damned good question, but for them I think that was beside the point, which was that they wanted to vote for Stein and the whole Nuevo Green-o movement. (A few friends of mine supported Bernie during the primary, but voted for Hillary in the general). Look, I’m sympathetic to a degree, I’d love to really like the candidate I’m voting for, but reality has to inform my outlook. Our current reality tells me I was right to be worried that Republicans would tear it down.

  31. Lounsbury says:

    @Dave Schuler: I don’t think there’s any credibility to any X group on the Left prefers Trump in White House over Biden, that is an extremely silly thing to parrot. No one of any numbers or influence is quite that daft.

  32. dmichael says:

    To my fellow Democrats: When formulating your tactics to achieve your strategy of removing Trump, assume the following:
    1. Trump (and his lackeys) will stonewall, i.e., refuse lawful process, instruct others to violate the law in response to House requests and delay court review.
    2. Republicans in Congress will accommodate and facilitate Trump’s actions.
    3. Administration officials will present themselves as willing to negotiate but will ultimately refuse to comply.
    4. News outlets will do the “both sides do it” dance and Fox News will continue to puke out propaganda.
    5. Focus on your base rather than trying to revive the latent cognitive functioning of the Trump supporters.
    6. On your desk, keep a picture of Mitch McConnell smirking about Supreme Court nominees.
    Act accordingly.