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Democrats’ impeachment agita, explained

Party leaders wanted to wait for Mueller. Events may not cooperate.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

When it comes to the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump, House Democrats have desperately been trying to take things slow.

But events may not be cooperating.

On Thursday, BuzzFeed News’s Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier reported that Trump had directed his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress in 2017, to cover up talks to build a Trump Tower Moscow.

The general response among congressional Democrats was to say that if true, the story would be a serious crime — and, some added, impeachment-worthy.

But perhaps the most significant development was that the head of the House Judiciary Committee — the main committee that would oversee the impeachment process — pledged to do the “work” to “get to the bottom” of what happened.

The previous position of most Democrats, especially party leaders and key committee chairs, was to try to postpone any move toward impeachment for now. When Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) told activists “we’re going to impeach the motherfucker,” elected Democrats responded with a chorus of criticisms.

They did so largely because they felt impeachment would be a certain political loser for the party — many remember the GOP’s Bill Clinton impeachment, which ended in failure, all too well. Even if the House approved impeachment, 20 Senate Republican votes would be required to actually remove Trump from office. That seems impossible, unless damning new information emerged.

So the Democratic strategy was, essentially, to say they were waiting to see what special counsel Robert Mueller concluded. Maybe he would serve up shocking new revelations that would change the political dynamics on impeachment. But as more damaging information about Trump keeps emerging, the arguments to hold off seem to many to be a tougher sell.

What’s the Democratic divide over impeachment?

The prevailing sentiment among elected Democrats has been quite skeptical of impeachment. Perhaps a few dozen of the 235 House Democrats have said they are in favor. And even some of those supporters don’t talk about it very often — like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who prefers to talk policy and ideology — or have shifted to a “let’s wait for Mueller” position.

There are some vocal impeachment advocates in the House. They include Reps. Brad Sherman (CA), Al Green (TX), and Steve Cohen (TN) — all of whom have actually introduced articles of impeachment — as well as, now, Tlaib, who laid out her thinking at greater length in an op-ed with attorney John Bonifaz this month.

But by far the most common position among Democrats is that impeachment would be a mistake — at least if done too hastily.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tlaib’s position was “not the position of the House Democratic Caucus.” House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerry Nadler said it was “much too early to talk about that intelligently.” House Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said the strategy is to “present a case to the American people about what is happening and finding out for ourselves what is happening, and then we see where that takes us.”

Those on the left flank of the Democratic Senate caucus, meanwhile, prefer to call for Trump to resign rather than pushing for impeachment.

On the outside, though, billionaire activist Tom Steyer has spent millions since 2017 to fund a group calling for Trump’s impeachment, and has been running ads calling for it nationally and in early presidential primary states. Cynics suspected Steyer was using the issue to set himself up for a presidential campaign. But he recently announced he won’t run, and will instead “be dedicating 100 percent of my time and effort in 2019 towards Mr. Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.”

There’s also been a rising pro-impeachment chorus in the media — even from commentators known for being even-tempered and level-headed. This month, the New York Times’s David Leonhardt and the Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum both published detailed cases for impeachment. Vox founder Ezra Klein has also been arguing since December 2017 that Trump should be removed because he’s simply unfit for office.

On the popular pro-Democratic Pod Save America podcast, co-host Jon Favreau said Leonhardt had laid out “almost an airtight case,” and said it’s time to “start laying the groundwork in public opinion” for impeachment. Co-host Jon Lovett responded, “Donald Trump should be impeached and removed from office as soon as humanly fucking possible. He is a criminal, unfit, moron, racist thief.” He continued, “Get to the point that impeachment is politically possible. Every day should be about making that case.”

What are the arguments for impeachment?

The actual justifications for impeachment offered by supporters are some combination of the following:

  • Rule of law: Trump’s alleged attempts to obstruct the Mueller investigation and his efforts to have the Justice Department investigate and prosecute his political opponents are often cited as impeachment-worthy. Some mention Trump’s disparagement of the press as dangerous to democracy too. Now there’s the report that says Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress.
  • Corruption: Trump’s continued ownership of his company is cited as a violation of the constitutional provision preventing presidents from accepting foreign emoluments. His hush money payments to women alleging affairs with him in 2016 are also cited as a violation of campaign finance law (of which Cohen has already pleaded guilty to).
  • Bigotry: Rep. Green, the co-sponsor to impeachment articles, argued after the violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that Trump should be impeached for his “record of inciting white supremacy, sexism, bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, race-baiting, and racism.”
  • Family separation: Steyer and Tlaib cited Trump’s handling of this as a particularly egregious act meriting his impeachment.
  • General unfitness of character: “We have grown too afraid of the consequences of impeachment and too complacent about the consequences of leaving an unfit president in office,” Ezra Klein wrote in December 2017. He was particularly alarmed by Trump’s Twitter threats toward North Korea, fearing they could lead to a devastating disaster. “This is an emergency. We should break the glass.”

What are the arguments against impeachment?

Most in the Democratic Party would endorse the above list wholeheartedly if it were just presented as a set of reasons Trump is a bad president. But they have tended to be far queasier about impeachment as a remedy — at least so far.

There are two main categories of arguments here — objections to impeachment on the merits, and objections for political reasons — though both are often made by the same people.

Objections on the merits: Some Democrats do appear to think that, on the merits, impeaching Trump simply isn’t justified at this point. Few want to state this plainly, given Trump’s unpopularity in their party, but it’s implicit in many impeachment skeptics’ comments. (Some may change their views if the BuzzFeed News report that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress is confirmed.)

Clearly, arguments that Trump should be impeached because he’s unfit, or racist, or because he continues to own his business, or because of his family separation policy hasn’t been convincing to most of the party. Instead, a common argument is that the impeachment process should be reserved for major criminal offenses committed by the president — with an emphasis on “major.”

Asked about Trump’s involvement in Cohen’s violation of campaign finance law for hush money payments last year, Nadler, the incoming House Judiciary chair, told the New York Times Magazine that some criminal offenses may not “rise to the level of importance where you should impeach.”

The impeachment process is, after all, the first step in the process of removing an elected president of the United States. Many Democrats profess to believe this should not be done for political purposes against a president they simply don’t like. (Some refer back to the Republican impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which at the time Democrats deemed a dreadful abuse of the process.)

“An impeachment is an attempt” to “overturn the result of the last election and [we] should do it only for very serious situations,” Nadler told CNN. (Though it is important to note that the practical effect of removing Trump would make the elected Republican VP Mike Pence president, not a Democrat.)

In any case, this argument is that unless strong evidence of some major crime emerges, the path to ousting Trump should be defeating him in the 2020 election.

Political or pragmatic objections: But the second set of objections to impeachment relates to politics and strategy.

“No one is above the law,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) told USA Today last month. “But you have to balance that against the reality of whether what you’re seeking to do would be successful.”

This is the argument that, whether one thinks impeachment is a good or bad idea on the merits, the simple reality is that a push for it now leads to a dead end — because it’s certain to fail in the Senate. There’s just no way, it seems, that given what we know now, 20 or more Senate Republicans would vote to remove Trump from office. So why waste time?

Some even go further, arguing that an impeachment push could backfire and bolster Trump’s support. It’s worth noting that in 2018, it was generally Republican candidates who were eager to bring up the topic of Trump’s potential impeachments, thinking it would mobilize their base to turn out to protect the president.

Nadler also worried, to the Times, whether Trump’s supporters could be convinced. He specifically said he’d only want to launch the impeachment process if he thought an “appreciable fraction of the Trump voters” could be won over eventually. “You don’t want to tear the country apart,” he continued. “You don’t want a situation where for the next 30 years half the country is saying, ‘We won the election; you stole it from us.’ ”

Here I will also note that certain politicians may well believe that the best way to politically set things up for a potential impeachment is to convince people that, at this point, they’re still keeping an open mind and waiting for more evidence.

Jayapal told the Washington Post that the strategy is to “present a case to the American people about what is happening and finding out for ourselves what is happening, and then we see where that takes us.”

She added: “You have to get the votes.”

Is impeachment really a political loser?

In justifying their skepticism of impeachment, many Democrats tend to cite their memories of the GOP push to impeach President Bill Clinton.

Leaving aside the question of the merits there, there’s been an enduring perception in Washington that the effort was a dreadful political loser for Republicans.

The evidence for this is basically that Clinton’s popularity remained high throughout, and that in the 1998 midterm elections, Republicans lost four House seats. (That midterm result might not seem so bad, but in historical context, it’s quite shocking for the party that holds the presidency to gain seats in Congress.)

Still, there are some indications that even a failed impeachment effort might not be as obviously politically toxic as the conventional wisdom thinks — and that Trump’s situation could be quite different from Clinton’s.

Looking at FiveThirtyEight’s historical presidential approval data, Clinton’s approval rating was quite high at the beginning of the year the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke (1998). Over the course of the year, it dropped, but not by very much. Then it rose again toward the end of the year (as the House voted to impeach).

But though there was some movement in this period, the commonality is that Clinton was far more popular throughout those years than Trump has been. Trump’s approval rating has hovered in the low 40s, whereas all through 1998, Clinton’s approval was at 60 percent or more.

Additionally, the Clinton impeachment effort wrapped up in February 1999. By the time the 2000 election rolled around, it was far in the past, and other issues dominated the public conversation. And a Republican, George W. Bush, became the next president. Impeaching Trump may not be a political gold mine, but the evidence that it would tank Democratic prospects in 2020 seems thin.

Democrats’ most common position: let’s see what Mueller finds

In any case, Democrats who aren’t currently convinced by the case for impeachment, either substantively or politically, have flocked to a ready-made response: Let’s see what Mueller finds.

This has been the most common answer among House Democrats asked about the topic.

“We have to wait and see what happens with the Mueller report,” Pelosi said. “People should cool their jets a little bit, let the prosecutors do their job and finish the investigation,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI). The effect is that the bulk of the Democratic Party has more or less outsourced its judgments on whether Trump should be impeached to the special counsel.

This is a convenient answer politically — it’s an easy response to base voters who ask Democrats why they’re not impeaching Trump yet. One catch, of course, is that at some point, Mueller will wrap up his investigation — and Democrats will have to make up their minds about whether his findings merit impeachment. They won’t be able to dodge forever.

A Mueller report has seemed to be the one thing most likely to shake up the current political equilibrium. If the special counsel has amassed a great deal of genuinely damning evidence against Trump, the political feasibility of impeachment could change very quickly. Those with objections to impeachment on the merits could be won over. It also may grant a hypothetical eventual impeachment more legitimacy, since the precipitating determinations will be made by nonpartisan prosecutors, not elected partisans.

Another catch, though, is the calendar. The 2020 election is still 22 months away, but the longer Democrats wait before impeachment, the more convincing the “let’s just beat Trump at the ballot box” argument will seem. Some in the party may even prefer to have an unpopular, scandal-plagued Trump atop the GOP ticket. (Though some Democrats were thrilled when Trump became the nominee in 2016, and look how that turned out for them.)

Then there’s the problem that the news might not wait for Mueller — as the BuzzFeed report claiming Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress shows. Already, Democrats have committed to try to find out if the report is accurate. And if they find out it is, they’ll feel pressure to move forward on impeachment, whether or not the special counsel is done.

Removal is Republicans’ call. But impeachment is Democrats’ call.

In the end, while Democrats may have a host of disagreements on impeachment, the real decision-makers on whether Trump may one day be convicted and removed from office are Senate Republicans.

The bar for convicting an impeached president is high — the votes of 67 senators, two-thirds of the chamber, would be necessary.

Since Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a 53-47 majority, that means that even if all 47 Democrats voted to convict Trump — including moderates like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — they would need another 20 Republicans votes to make it happen.

That’s grown tougher to imagine after two years of Trump exerting his dominance over the GOP Senate caucus. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of Republican senators try desperately to avoid high-profile spats with the president. They have to face primary voters, and fear that attacks from Trump could sink their careers.

It’s hard to envision this changing without one of two things: an utter collapse in Trump’s popularity (well below his current 40 percent overall approval and his 89 percent approval with Republicans) that would make the party expect a total wipeout in 2020; or some indisputable, incredibly damning evidence of an extremely serious crime. (Even that might not do it.)

Still, things can change quite quickly. Many Republicans in Congress staunchly defended President Nixon through nearly a year and a half of damaging revelations in the Watergate scandal.

But on August 5, 1974, Nixon was forced to turn over what became known as the “smoking gun” tape — which revealed that, contra his denials, he’d ordered his chief of staff to get the CIA to try to block the FBI’s investigation into the break-in at the DNC’s Watergate Hotel office. That proved the tipping point, as Republican after Republican in Congress abandoned the president. Three days later, Nixon announced he’d resign.

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