Many liberals, particularly those wearing battle-scars from the 1990s, wish Democrats didn’t face constant questions about the potential impeachment of President Trump.
During the campaign, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared that a Democratic majority would only impeach Trump on a bipartisan basis, in the face of “evidence [that] would have to be so conclusive.”
Many conservatives, most of whom also remember the 1990s, are deploying a revised history of the Republican Party’s experience back then to psyche Democrats out of doing any meaningful oversight whatsoever—let alone impeaching the president.
“All I’m doing is making a historical observation that the business of presidential harassment, which we were deeply engaged in in the late ’90s improved the President’s approval rating and tanked ours,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after Democrats won the House last week. “Thus my observation is that it might not be a smart strategy, but it’s up to them to decide how they want to handle that.”
Pelosi has essentially outsourced the question of impeachment up to Republicans, who in turn have emerged from the midterm elections a more reactionary, Trumpier party. If both factions were to get their ways, impeachment would vanish from the national political debate, and Trump would internalize its disappearance as yet another reason to believe he can corrupt the American government with impunity.
There’s a reason this isn’t happening, though, and it isn’t because Democrats have played coy about impeachment. Democrats have been at pains to convey their misgivings about it. Their protestations have done nothing to waft away the pall of impeachment because the country’s political elite, and large swaths of its general population, know that Trump is historically corrupt, and has committed a variety of impeachable offenses—that he deserves to be impeached, even if the political will to impeach him and remove him from office hasn’t materialized on its own.
It is foolish and potentially dangerous for Democrats to imagine they can avoid the impeachment question in perpetuity, particularly if they intend to do the kind of vigorous oversight they’ve promised. What we’ve already learned about Trump through non-oversight channels is incredibly damning and leaves little doubt that Democrats will unearth misconduct that makes Richard Nixon look clean and cautious by comparison. It’s actually hard to imagine that Democrats won’t eventually reach a crossroads where they must choose between forging ahead with impeachment unilaterally and explaining why Trump’s impeachable offenses will go unpunished.
They should not fear this or get mind-gamed into assuming that impeachment can’t be anything but a trap for them. It’s easy if ahistorical to assume the public will view impeaching Trump as overreach, and punish Democrats if they go down that path alone. It’s just as easy to imagine that impeaching Trump in the House—with or without Republican support, or any hope of convicting him in the Senate—will become a no-brainer
In an article warning Trump’s opponents to “forget impeachment,” Jonathan Chait argues that the political value of oversight, and of any coming indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, will be to expose Trump’s criminality to the public ahead of 2020. “Democrats,” he writes, “have internalized the pointlessness of impeaching the president to no effect.”
There is a danger that premature thinking such as this will ignite unnecessary infighting within the Democratic caucus down the line, and allow Trump to imagine he can spend the next two years abusing his office without meaningful resistance. Such impunity would extend to his conduct during the 2020 election, when he will enjoy not just subversive Russian support but all the powers of the presidency as well.
Trump entered the White House in violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. He spent nearly all of 2017 and this year using the presidency to enrich himself, through his private businesses. He obstructed justice, or attempted to obstruct justice, brazenly. He has abused his power to threaten and abridge the First Amendment, and ignored the cyber-threat the Russian government poses to American elections. It was this pattern of behavior, not anything Democrats said, that guaranteed Democratic congressional candidates would face questions about whether he should be impeached.
Democrats’ plain reluctance to treat impeachment as a viable remedy to this profound corruption has already emboldened Trump. During the campaign, he raised the specter of impeachment gleefully, imagining it would both motivate his supporters to vote, and cow Democrats into pushing the threat of impeachment further to the margin. Note that with impeachment at the forefront of his supporters’ minds, Democrats nevertheless routed his party in the midterms. Yet having successfully driven Democrats to disclaim their own impeachment power, he felt completely unbridled to fire his attorney general the day after the election and replace him, on dubious constitutional grounds, with a lackey selected solely to compromise Mueller’s investigation. His abuses of power have accelerated not just with respect to his own legal jeopardy, but across the board. Since the election, he has inserted himself into multiple undecided elections, with the plain aim of preventing all votes from being counted, or of creating a legitimacy crisis in the event that Democrats ultimately win any of the races—perhaps a trial run for the aftermaths his own re-election campaign in 2020. He also stripped a disfavored reporter of his White House hard pass.
Why wouldn’t he do these things, particularly if he’s guided by the sense that Democrats will refuse to impeach him so long as Republicans refuse to convict and remove him?
There is a better alternative to letting Republicans dictate the terms of House Democrats’ power, but it would require Democrats not to over-learn the lessons of the 1990s.
It is a common belief in American politics that Republicans of the late 1990s proved voters are implacably hostile to impeaching presidents, and suffered serious political consequences for defying public will. A more faithful interpretation is that Republicans revealed the public opposes overzealous crusades to impeach presidents on dubious grounds, but also that ignoring the public paved the way for Republicans to retake the presidency in 2000, campaigning against the misconduct their anti-Clinton zealotry turned up.
Impeaching a president who is very unlikely to be removed bears at least a family resemblance to passing a bill out of the House that the Senate is likely to shelve or vote down, yet nobody expects Democrats to shelve all of their legislative priorities next year. They might shelve some legislation, because some bills, while important, are unpopular and easy to demagogue, but they would break faith with the public to simply surrender across the board.
Public sentiment still counts for a lot. House Democrats will do a lot of “pointless” things, if they’re things the public wants them to. If Mueller and Democratic investigators unearth yet more evidence of damning crimes, impeachment could easily become one of those things. Democrats should thus let the severity of the crimes, and the public’s reaction to those crimes, determine their course, rather than hand that power to recalcitrant Republicans, nearly all of whom spent the last two years making themselves complicit in the president’s corruption.
Trump may command enough votes in the Senate to lock down the presidency for the duration of his term, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a majority of the public won’t eventually want Democrats to proceed as if Republicans were no obstacle. The point of impeaching Trump wouldn’t then be to remove him, but to force Republicans to stake out their positions, just as they’ll have to stake out their positions on voting rights, the minimum wage, pre-existing conditions, and many other issues. Impeaching Trump would either allow a trial play out publicly, or cow Republicans into changing Senate precedent, in defiance of strong norms, to make an impeachment trial discretionary rather than mandatory. Either way, they would have to stand up and be counted. Republicans could close ranks around Trump to avoid fracturing their party and its base, but in doing so make themselves toxic to their general electorates. Dozens of soon-to-be unemployed Republicans just learned how this process might work the hard way.
The broader point is that nothing’s written. Trump isn’t Bill Clinton, House Democrats aren’t House Republicans, Robert Mueller isn’t Ken Starr, and the Russia conspiracy isn’t the Lewinsky affair. There is no iron rule of politics that says impeachment without removal is always pointless or politically damaging, so there’s no reason to forget or assume anything. The politics of the 2010s and the 1990s are similar in some ways, but not in most. Things might play out much the same way, and yet completely differently, this time around.