Impeachment Is a Serious Matter, But It Should Not Be Unthinkable

by Neil H. Buchanan

Like Richard Nixon before him, Donald Trump is now betting all of his political chips on the hope that foreign policy successes will distract everyone from his problematic relationships with the truth, the law, and basic decency.

Unsurprisingly, even in the midst of a modest success, Trump again managed to outdo even Nixon's ick factor, this time standing in front of a group of released political prisoners and praising their captor.  ("I want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people.")

None of Nixon's international grandstanding helped him when the walls closed in, and it is difficult to imagine even some significant foreign policy successes being enough to save another doomed presidency.  The question, however, is whether Trump's presidency will be doomed by impeachment (or its specter) or by the voters.

This question has generated some interesting disagreement among people who want to rid us of Trump.  Count me among those who are not having fainting spells at the very thought of impeachment.

Congressman Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who engaged in a fierce (but always doomed) effort to prevent the Republicans from turning the House Intelligence Committee's investigation of Trump into a farce, is certainly an authoritative voice in the current conversation.  He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times recently in which he warned his fellow Democrats not to "take the bait on  impeachment."

Schiff's basic argument is sensible -- almost to the point of being a truism: "Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy, not to be entertained lightly, and in the case of a president, would mean putting the country through a deeply wrenching process."  True enough.  Others have also made the point that impeachment should not become routine, because there has to be enough stability in a system to allow a president to do her or his job.

Schiff also makes the important point that the Senate has "established the precedent that a federal official can be removed for conduct committed before assuming office."  That is a big deal, especially because Trump's defenders are sure to argue that only presidential acts can be the basis for impeachment.

Indeed, I predict that Republicans will treat this issue in the same way that they have been treating their false claim that a president cannot be impeached for doing something that he is otherwise legally empowered to do.  He fired the FBI director and admitted that he did it to obstruct an inquiry?  No problem, say Trump's enablers, because a president is allowed to fire an FBI director.

No matter how many times people explain that it matters why a president does something (such as Professor Dorf's example of a president doing something that is otherwise legal in return for a cash payment from a wealthy private citizen), Trump's enablers will continue to repeat that a president has certain powers.  Count on the "nothing before he took office counts against him" argument to be similarly resistant to logic or reason.

In any case, Schiff's larger argument essentially boils down to telling Democrats not to feed Trump's supporters' paranoia by talking about impeachment.  Impeachment might yet become possible, he says, but Democrats should "[l]et President Trump arouse his voters as he will, while Democrats continue to focus on the economy, family and a return to basic decency."

It is not an insult to say that Schiff's advice is exactly what one would expect from a politician.  Although he is an excellent lawyer, he is highlighting the incontrovertible fact that impeachment is a political process, and Democrats can do themselves damage at the polls by seeming to be obsessed with bringing Trump down.  And this advice is necessary, as there certainly would be plenty of people on the left who would like the entire midterm election to become a referendum on impeaching Trump.

It follows that Democrats should also not go for impeachment unless they know that they can win.  Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post's never-Trump conservative columnist, wrote a short piece praising Schiff's op-ed, noting that "[t]here is little to be gained by impeaching Trump if he then is not removed. Rightly or wrongly, Trump and his supporters would take the Senate’s failure to convict as vindication, suggesting the conduct they engaged in is acceptable."

Again, even though none of this is trivial, it is rather obvious.  Yes, it would be stupid for a House that is newly controlled by Democrats in 2019 to impeach Trump if it was not all but certain that Trump would be convicted by the Senate.  Therefore, yes, impeachment will only make sense if something bigger than what we have already seen emerges, because even in the best of circumstances conviction would require at least fifteen Republican votes after a Senate trial.  Those votes will not be easy to find.

What worries me about this discussion is that it feels like another instance in which Democrats are convincing themselves to lose through timidity (which they will call caution and prudence).  The more Democrats tell each other that, as Schiff wrote, impeachment is "a remedy that must be considered soberly, mindful of the fact that removing a president from office should be the recourse for only the most serious transgressions," the more likely it is that they will be able to convince themselves that nothing Trump has done or will do is serious enough to be impeachable.

Why am I worried?  Schiff argues that "if impeachment is seen by a substantial part of the country as merely an effort to nullify an election by other means, there will be no impeachment, no matter how high the crime or serious the misdemeanor."  That, however, is going to be true no matter what.  Everyone on the Trump right already believes that this is all a witch hunt, and they are a "substantial part of the country" at least in the sense that nothing pushes Trump's poll numbers much below 40 percent approval.

Similarly, Rubin endorses Schiff's warning that the case for impeachment "will be made more difficult politically if part of the country feels that removing Mr. Trump is the result that some of their fellow Americans were wishing for all along."  How would we manage to pull that off?  I am hardly the only person who saw Trump as a walking constitutional disaster from the very beginning, and many people have argued sincerely (and, I hope, persuasively) that what we already know about Trump is absolutely impeachable.  His own admissions alone make the case against him.

In that case, how are we to say, "Well, we're still in favor of impeaching your guy, because even more evidence has emerged, but this is not something that we wished for all along?"  It is, and a sizable chunk of the country is going to be angry forever no matter how we try to finesse this.

Indeed, imagine that enough new evidence of wrongdoing were to emerge that, say, twenty Republican Senators were willing to vote for impeachment.  That still would not change the fact that the people leading the charge never wanted Trump to win in the first place and that they were ready to impeach him long ago.  Presumably, those twenty turncoats would only act in an environment where the public turned sufficiently against the president that they would not risk their political futures.

But Nixon was driven out when only a small minority of Republicans in Congress defected, with many Nixon defenders still claiming that "everyone does it, but Nixon merely got caught."  It was a wrenching process, and it left scars, but it was necessary.

All of these considerations are related to another argument that others on the left have made recently.  It is the voters, they say, who should render the verdict on Trump.  In that line of thinking, even if the votes in the Senate would be there to convict, we should instead allow Trump to lose in a landslide in 2020 (or maybe not even be nominated by his adopted party in the first place).

Meanwhile, Trump makes terrible decisions every day, large and small.  Most recently, for example, Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal -- against the advice of almost everyone other than his most hard-line backers.  It is not a stretch to say that this horrible decision might soon lead to all-out war in the Middle East and possibly the use of nuclear weapons by Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and/or the United States.  And what if Trump's new chumminess with Kim Jung-un returns to saber-rattling idiocy as quickly as it recently turned into bromance?

The point is that the stakes are high, too high to say that we can bide our time and let normal politics sort things out.  For now, this is entirely an academic exercise, because Republicans are lined up solidly behind Trump.  But if that changes, we should not simply say, "Well, impeachment is a big deal, and he'll lose in 2020 anyway."  Too much can go wrong in the meantime to say that impeachment is (all but) off the table.