If Democrats sincerely considered Donald Trump to be unfit for office, and believed he had committed impeachable offenses, and that they should at least begin the process of removing him from office, they most likely wouldn’t be doing anything much differently than they are right now.
They don’t call it an impeachment inquiry per se, but the chairs of several House committees have launched expansive investigations of Trump’s corruption, crimes, and abuses of power. Because Trump revels publicly in corruption, crime, and abuses of power, these investigations are likely to turn up extensive evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors, if not bribery and treason, and could thus compile the factual basis of articles of impeachment.
But because of what they have said—the terms they have committed themselves to—Democratic leaders have all but doomed themselves to the worst-possible approach: One in which they unearth damning evidence and then make the conscious decision not to act on it; one in which they tacitly bless all of Trump’s wrongdoing and pray both that voters do all the hard work for them, and that nothing tragic happens as a consequence of their inaction.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stunned the political world on Monday when she told the Washington Post, “I’m not for impeachment. This is news. I’m going to give you some news right now because I haven’t said this to any press person before. But since you asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”
Her comments sparked a debate over whether she had closed the door to impeachment altogether or left herself some wiggle room to revive the impeachment option if Democrats turn up evidence of something “compelling and overwhelming.” But both analyses omit the italicized condition—that impeachment must be bipartisan—which has formed the basis of the Democratic Party’s standard for impeachment since Trump became president.
What Pelosi really did was affirm that Democrats long ago gave the Republican Party a silent veto over whether Trump should be held accountable for anything. Back in May of last year, when Democrats were still in the minority, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff insisted, “there will be no impeachment, no matter how high the crime or serious the misdemeanor,” unless “Democratic and Republican members of Congress can make the case to their constituents that they were obligated to remove him.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler adopted a similar standard recently, and yesterday he endorsed Pelosi’s view. “She laid down a number of conditions—it has got to be bipartisan, the evidence has to be overwhelming—which is what I’ve been saying.”
Pelosi, Schiff, and Nadler are seasoned politicians who don’t say much that’s unrehearsed. Their position that passing articles of impeachment—a process that requires a simple majority in the House—must be bipartisan sends a clear message to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other GOP leaders: that the key to Trump’s continued impunity is for Republicans to simply continue doing what they’ve been doing all along—ignore or celebrate his misconduct, attack the investigators, lie as much as it takes to keep Trump’s base of support from falling through the floor.
When Republicans inevitably take this path, the Pelosi standard will commit Democrats to the course of consciously, publicly choosing to proceed no further, to say Congress will take no position on Trump’s obstruction of justice, his violation of the emoluments clause, and his criminal schemes. That might or might not be the safest political course of action for the party, but it will establish a new precedent in our country that presidents can make themselves untouchable, to the law and to Congress, if only they’re willing to be as selfish and malevolent as Trump. And it will do so at a moment when one of the country’s two political parties has fully embraced an ethos of corruption, greed, and will to power.
The most common response to the argument that Democrats should at least keep an open mind about impeaching Trump in the House, even if Republicans remain hopelessly intransigent, is that impeachment is a dead end. The Senate will acquit Trump, he will claim vindication, the public will side with him, and Democrats will have nothing to show for the whole ordeal other than a steeper climb back to power in 2020.
We know that Democratic leaders have adopted what they believe to be a cautious approach, because it is publicly calculated to protect vulnerable new members. “We’ve got 62 new members,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “not three.”
The truth is nobody can say with any certainty how a partisan impeachment fight over Trump would play out because history hasn’t equipped us with enough test cases to draw informed conclusions. But it also doesn’t support the supposedly cautious approach of forswearing impeachment unless both parties are bought in. Republicans famously charged ahead with a dead-end partisan impeachment of a popular Democratic president, and the country punished them by electing a Republican president two years later. Richard Nixon resigned when he realized he would be impeached and removed on a bipartisan basis, but before Watergate came to a head, impeachment was a polarizing and unpopular position. It only became popular after the House initiated an impeachment process, and it seems likely that the House drove public opinion in the right direction simply by taking its constitutional obligations seriously.
It is likely that things would shake out somewhat differently today. The conservative movement didn’t fully overtake the Republican Party for another two decades after Nixon resigned, and in the interim it stood up Fox News and the larger conservative noise machine, in part to assure that a Republican president would never be driven from office like Nixon was again. If this history points to anything it’s that a good-faith impeachment process would make public opinion conform to public opinion about Trump himself—which is to say, most people would support impeachment, but a solid minority would oppose it, and Republicans would stand with the minority.
It’s hard to see what the Democrats would lose from such an outcome, but what they would gain is something that impeachment opponents routinely gloss over: a trial. If Democrats build a solid case, and pass compelling articles of impeachment, the Senate’s rules obligate it to conduct a trial, with the chief justice of the United States presiding, in a manner that will be very hard for Republicans to cheapen. As in the 1990s, we’d expect the president’s party to protect him from expulsion, but unlike in the 1990s, the charges would recall the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Nixon years. The pro-impeachment proposition is that Democrats should build the case, hold the trial, and let Republicans in Congress decide whether they want to shred our shared standards of accountability—to let their votes be counted—instead of doing it for them as they quietly sidestep the question.
In either case, the voters will render the final verdict, but in an impeachment scenario, the question would be laid before them clearly, and will place the entire Republican Party on the hook directly for the crimes they’ve been passively abetting for over two years now. It would also preserve important norms about what kinds of behavior should be impeachable.
Under the Pelosi standard no abuse of power is too severe to tolerate if a third of the country can be convinced to overlook it. Under the Pelosi standard, Republicans enjoy a handicap where they and their propaganda allies can short circuit the Constitution through relentless disinformation and culture war nonsense, and never face a referendum on their underlying conduct or character. Under the Pelosi standard, Republicans can openly embrace any impeachable conduct that actually delights their supporters, which means Trump and future GOP presidents will have a freer hand than they already do to sic the Justice Department on their political enemies.
If Pelosi merely wanted her impeachment-happy members to dial it back, she could have told them to simmer down, let investigators compile evidence, and allow the party to decide internally whether that evidence is “compelling and overwhelming.” She instead told them that they will do nothing with the evidence, no matter how compelling and overwhelming, unless Republicans suddenly become willing to do the right thing. And that makes her declaration, if it holds, an abdication all Democrats will come to regret.