The idea behind the push for impeachment was that forcing Republicans to vote on the propriety of President Trump’s conduct, after a sustained airing of his abuses of power, would be a political nightmare for them, and finally force a public reckoning with their complicity in Trump’s crimes. That theory has borne out exquisitely in the inquiry’s first full week, but it doesn’t mean people with no direct role to play in the impeachment process can’t strengthen it. House Democrats shouldn’t have to confront Trump alone; other prominent Democrats and anti-Trump forces have a role to play too.
It is true that the House alone has the power to subpoena documents and pressure people in the administration to come clean about wrongdoing, and that is how we’ve continued to learn more, increasingly sordid details about Trump’s wholesale corruption of American foreign policy. But at some point House Republicans will have to vote on articles of impeachment; shortly thereafter, Senate Republicans will have to decide whether Trump should be removed from office; and when it’s all over, if Trump survives, they will all have to answer to the voting public for participating in a humiliating, criminal degradation of the country.
Republicans already face a terrible predicament.
Republicans are not speaking out publicly against Trump — that has not changed.
But in the last 24 hours or so, many senior Republicans who are very friendly with Trump have completely shut down and stopped defending Trump off the record.
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) October 4, 2019
And as the full story of their complicity spills out into the public, they will be vulnerable to immense pressure—but only if Democrats and progressive activists supply it. Fortunately for them there are many avenues of attack.
For now, Mitt Romney is the sole Senate Republican who has spoken plainly about Trump’s conduct.
By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) October 4, 2019
His words represent a small but serious crack in the Republican facade, and an opening Democrats can use to drive a wedge between vulnerable Republican incumbent senators and the president. Confronted with a basic request from an angry constituent to address Trump’s conduct and condemn it, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) seized up, as if acutely aware that she will be unable to straddle the line this time. Either she will side with Trump, or she will do what’s right.
This process can be replicated over and over again, not just to make these senators feel awkward and look craven but to extract real commitments from them. When the House passes articles of impeachment, it will be up to the Senate to determine how long and serious the trial is. Between Romney and the incumbent class of Republican senators, along with a small handful of others, there may be four who would commit to insisting that the Senate conduct the impeachment trial in good faith—and that’s all that would be needed to shut down Mitch McConnell’s desire to dismiss the coming articles on summary judgement.
There are other pressure points as well, including a couple that only Democratic presidential candidates can exploit.
Joe Biden has premised his presidential candidacy on three notions: First, that denying Trump a second term is an existential objective for the Democratic Party. (Check.) Second, that he’s the candidate best situated politically to take Trump down. Third, that as president his long-standing friendships with the Republican Senate leadership will allow him—and him uniquely—to accomplish things that advance the common good.
These latter premises rest uncomfortably alongside the Republican Party’s reaction to Trump’s looming impeachment for the high crime of coercing foreign governments to sic their prosecutors on the Biden family. These Republicans, including the ones Biden has known for decades, have not ridden to the defense of their old friend Joe. To the contrary, they appear poised to make sure Trump faces no consequences of any kind for inviting foreign interference into the 2020 election, which will in turn free Trump to gin up an even wider international campaign of harassment against Biden, or whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Earlier this year, Biden referred to Vice President Mike Pence as a “decent guy,” and Pence has returned the kindness by encouraging Ukraine to make up dirt about him.
But of course, Biden’s theory of the case wasn’t that he’d win the presidency and his former colleagues would race to the White House to cut deals with him. It’s that he’d be able to put those friendships to productive use by approaching them in good faith, with the country’s interests in mind.
At Trump’s point of maximum vulnerability—and I mean this completely sincerely—he should test this theory by appealing directly to his Republican friends to stop Trump from further harming the country. Biden boasts frequently about the deals he cut with McConnell during the Obama years, and the record suggests the two men have genuine affection for one another. In the not-so-distant past, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Biden “a pro,” and Biden privately told McConnell he wanted to see him win re-election. There is nothing stopping Biden from seeking a meeting with McConnell and asking him to step in—for the sake of their friendship if not the country—to stop Trump’s subversion of democracy and remove him from office. Biden would both test his claim to be the best candidate for the presidency and, if he could convince even a handful of his friends that they should take Trump’s impeachment seriously, possibly save the country. It is unlikely to work, but it is worth a try.
More generally, every liberal with agency and a theory of change should be thinking about how to maximize the pressure this impeachment process will place on Trump and Republicans.
Among 2020 candidates, Biden and fellow poll-leader Bernie Sanders have been the most skeptical of impeachment, perhaps in part because their campaigns both draw strength from the view that the country needs to defeat Trump at the ballot box next year, and they’re best situated to do it. But what if they could help bring an end to the Trump emergency sooner than later?
By contrast to Biden, Sanders believes people like McConnell are only responsive to mass politics, and proposes to build a movement so large and durable that it will transform politics from the outside, making a Senate currently incapable of doing anything but cutting taxes and confirming right-wing judges into a progressive machine. Impeachment provides him a chance to test this theory, too, if not right now then in the coming weeks when the Senate puts Trump on trial and a reluctant Senate majority controls his fate.
Sanders wouldn’t have to do this alone. He, other leading presidential campaigns, activists groups like MoveOn, Indivisble, and the Women’s March could build and sustain a protest movement demanding Trump’s resignation or removal from office for as long as the impeachment process lasts. Imagine the symbolic power of millions of people marching in Washington, DC, and cities and towns across the country—now, and repeatedly as the process plays out—making concrete demands: for Republicans to support impeachment, for a real impeachment trial, for Trump’s conviction, or for a swifter end to the crisis that only Republican senators could bring about by telling Trump his time is up. If the people of Puerto Rico could force their corrupt governor from office with the power of mass protest, we should at least try to replicate the model on a national scale, now that the president has made clear there will not be a free and fair election with him on the ballot.
House Democrats are waging the impeachment fight admirably, and polls suggest that the public is with them. But for now it’s just polls. They are otherwise battling alone, in the crucible of the legislative process, without the kind of supportive artillery Trump enjoys in the form of relentless right-wing propaganda, a weaponized Justice Department, and a Twitter feed he now deploys routinely to incite his supporters to violence. The anti-Trump majority lacks both the means and the unscrupulousness to counter these forces in an analogous way, but we also have more tools at our disposal than we’re using, and the time has come to deploy them all simultaneously.