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Republicans Reach Their Impeachment Crossroads

The impeachment of Donald Trump will soon enter a new public phase, but we’ve also reached a different, more important one, where Republicans can no longer hide behind spin and deception.

For the first month of the inquiry, Trump and his allies tried to derail or discredit the impeachment process itself, because the information it brought to light proved indefensible to all but the most corrupt, dishonest Republicans in Congress.

This week’s developments have left Republicans cornered, on one side by Democrats and on another by Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has neutralized the GOP’s bad faith objection to the use of private depositions by establishing procedures for public-facing impeachment hearings, which should begin in November. But Trump, too, has begun pressuring Republicans to stop hiding behind diversionary complaints about the process and start defending his actual conduct—the extortion of a vulnerable, allied government to secure its interference in a U.S. election on his behalf.

It’s unclear how Republicans will respond to this pressure, or whether they will have a unified response of any kind. But the Republican Party itself has given us little reason to imagine that it will do the right thing if given a choice between protecting the country and protecting Trump. We should therefore begin anticipating what to expect from a party that has decided it’s acceptable for the president to abuse his power to deny voters a free and fair election, untainted by fraud.

A corrupt president might survive an impeachment a few different ways: Investigators might try but fail to unearth indisputable evidence of high crimes. The president’s allies might decide that his conduct, though improper, does not merit removal from office. What the Constitution does not contemplate—indeed, it all but commands the opposite—is the president’s allies sanctioning impeachable conduct, and declaring it a valid exercise of his or her power.

Trump and his most obedient loyalists have made it clear that they will treat any daylight between Republicans in Congress and the president as betrayal, and any outcome other than Trump’s glorious acquittal and re-election as illegitimate. Trump has called Republicans who have criticized his Ukraine conduct “human scum,” but even before the impeachment he began seeding the argument that his term limits should be extended as reimbursement for the years of his presidency eaten up by scandal.  

Those arguments, dismissed at the time as unserious, have now slipped into the mainstream of right wing discourse. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article suggesting the Constitution be amended to allow presidents impeached but acquitted to serve a third full term in office. More ominously, Mollie Hemingway, who writes for a Trump-propaganda outlet called the Federalist, has intimated that Trump supporters would be within their rights to riot in order to stop the impeachment, because it is the impeachment itself, not the impeachable conduct under investigation, that has subverted the election. 

Democrats “should stop expecting people to be as polite as they have been,” Hemingway writes ominously, because the impeachment of Donald Trump, “represents a fatal threat to our system of government, and if this coup succeeds — whether through impeachment proceedings, or through an election that (if the last three years are any indication) the other side is clearly willing to steal by hook or by crook — the nation will cease to be a constitutional, democratic republic.”

Hemingway doesn’t speak for the Republican Party per se, but she does provide Republican senators strategic advice at their invitation, and is the writer the conservative legal establishment anointed to author the authorized hagiography of Brett Kavanaugh, which characterizes his confirmation as a triumph over a vast left-wing conspiracy.

Her embrace of Trump’s depiction of impeachment as a “coup” is what we’ve come to expect from Trump’s right-wing media enforcers, and a statement of where they expect Republicans to ultimately land as impeachment runs its course. It is more notable that she and other members of the Trump commentariat have begun anticipating the political damage that the impeachment will do to Trump, and laying a narrative foundation for a stabbed-in-the-back myth that rejects the results of any election Trump loses after an impeachment as hopelessly tainted. 

This kind of projection—we didn’t try to steal the election, you did!—is a routine theme of pro-Trump propaganda. But if congressional Republicans get squeezed into excusing Trump’s conduct, it will inevitably become folded in to the talking points they use as we transition out of the impeachment process and into the election. 

After all, if the House impeaches Trump over conduct Republicans deem proper, then Republicans must also accuse Democrats and the government officials who have cooperated with them of willfully abusing the impeachment power to harm the president. The crossroads we are approaching will determine not just whether Trump survives impeachment, but the story Republicans tell themselves and their supporters about what Republicans should do in its aftermath. Before the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh, he warned Democrats that “what goes around comes around,” and perhaps Republicans will simply issue similar warnings to the Democratic candidates running for president today. But they will have already given Trump their blessing to drag foreign governments into the election for his personal benefit. What if he does it all over again, and wins? Or, just as unthinkably, what if in defeat Trump blames his loss on the impeachment, and refuses to concede?