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Why Democrats are moving so fast on impeachment

Is it a mistake to move quickly, rather than continue the investigation?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives to a press conference the opening day of the UNFCCC COP25 climate conference on December 2, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

Democrats officially announced their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump a little over two months ago — and now, they sound quite ready to be done with it.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday that she was instructing committee chairs to draw up articles of impeachment. House leaders have signaled they hope to wrap up proceedings in their chamber before Congress leaves for the December holidays. That means they’d like to take a final vote on impeaching Trump in a little over two weeks.

And they’ve made clear they believe time is of the essence.

“We view this as urgent,” House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff said last week.

“They keep taking it to court and, no, we’re not going to wait till the courts decide,” Pelosi said. “We can’t wait for that.”

“Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas gift for it to all wrap up by Christmas?” Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) asked.

Behind this is a shared assumption among much of the Democratic caucus that it is very important that impeachment be wrapped up early in 2020, rather than continuing late into the year, closer to the election.

Yet where this urgency will lead also seems clear: to a trial in the Senate that is all but certain to end in Trump’s acquittal and continuance in office. So it’s worth unpacking what’s behind this need for speed.

One likely explanation is that the outcome already seems set. Republicans have remained united behind Trump, meaning there’s no hope of getting a supermajority of 67 senators to remove him from office. So why prolong the inevitable?

But a quick vote won’t serve the purpose of nailing down the facts about what happened; there are still major gaps and missing pieces that would take new witnesses or documents (and lengthy court battles) to fill. It also won’t serve the purpose of removing Trump from office, since the votes clearly aren’t there to do that now. And for those hoping the impeachment inquiry will politically damage Trump, wrapping it up would take that off the table.

Indeed, the main thing achieved by a quick impeachment vote — besides a symbolic reprimand for Trump that would soon be followed by his Senate acquittal — would be to allow Democrats to move on to other matters.

And that may be what they want. The real purpose behind this haste appears to be political. Democratic leaders appear to think that staying on impeachment too long would be bad for them politically — or at least that it would be bad for the Democrats in swing districts on whom Pelosi’s majority depends.

Why Democratic leaders were always wary of impeachment

After months in which House Democrats were torn over the political wisdom of impeaching President Trump, the Ukraine scandal brought peace to the land. After an intelligence community whistleblower raised alarms that Trump was attempting to strong-arm Kyiv to interfere in the 2020 election in his favor, all but two members of the caucus came together in support of an effort that, it was immediately clear, would likely result in Trump’s impeachment.

But there were reasons Democratic leaders had been wary of impeachment all year and tried to stave it off despite intense pressure from their base.

For one, there was what they saw as the inevitable endpoint: If they did impeach Trump in the House, he’d be acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate. Due to the supermajority requirement for removal, at least 20 Republicans would have to break ranks to oust Trump. They knew that was never remotely likely and that, as a result, the impeachment quest would ultimately end in failure.

What’s unfolded over the past few months has only confirmed that judgment: Just one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), has broken with Trump over the Ukraine scandal. And even his break is mild — an open mind, not an outright condemnation. If others are considering breaking with the president, they’ve been very quiet about it.

Beyond that, Democratic leaders hesitated because impeachment didn’t poll well. More than 50 percent of voters tended to oppose it in polls, as you can see in this FiveThirtyEight tracker.

That turned around somewhat in late September after the Ukraine scandal broke and after Pelosi backed an impeachment inquiry and signaled Democratic unity. So the current situation is that a narrow plurality of voters now favors impeachment.

But that brings us to the next problem for Democrats: the House map. Though Trump lost the nationwide popular vote to Clinton by 2 percentage points in 2016, he won 228 House districts to her 207. So, under the current map, Democrats need to elect some members from districts Trump won or they can’t get the 218 seats necessary for a majority. Currently, they have 35 members in districts Trump won.

These members’ preferences have dictated Pelosi’s strategy and decision making all year, because her majority mathematically depends on them. And eventually, the vast majority of these members did come around to support an impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine scandal, meaning Pelosi soon followed.

Since then, though, Politico’s Sarah Ferris and Ally Mutnick report that some vulnerable Democrats have been “spooked” and “watching in horror” as pro-Trump groups have bombarded their districts with anti-impeachment ads. Others are desperately hoping to win some bipartisan cred by helping Trump enact a trade deal. Impeachment is still not a comfortable place for these Democrats to be.

What’s the purpose of an impeachment inquiry when Senate Republicans already have their minds made up?

With all of that in mind as background, it’s worth interrogating what, exactly, this current impeachment inquiry is meant to achieve. Because there are several possible aims, some that would be better served by a longer inquiry and others that wouldn’t.

1. Investigate the scandal

One evident purpose of this impeachment inquiry was to gather facts and learn more about what happened between Trump and Ukraine.

And so far, Democrats have had a great and somewhat unexpected amount of success in this. Seventeen current or former officials gave sworn testimony, and one witness — Kurt Volker — handed over a treasure trove of text messages documenting efforts to get Ukraine to agree to a quid pro quo.

Yet there’s still much that remains unresolved. Key witnesses like National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Bill Barr haven’t testified. Government agencies haven’t handed over any documents. These witnesses and documents could tell unknown parts of the story about what happened and could theoretically strengthen an impeachment case further.

The problem is that getting them would entail court battles that could take months and may end in failure. So Democrats have decided to declare victory and say they already have enough evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing to move forward. They also argue that new information is unlikely to change Republican senators’ minds at this point — which, fair enough.

But their decision to cut off the investigation here is largely being governed by an artificial timeline based on the assumption that impeachment “has to” be wrapped up quickly. They don’t know what other evidence is out there or what a prolonged investigation might turn up. And if they finish the inquiry now, they’ll lose an important argument that has had some success at winning over judges already — that they’re in the midst of exercising their constitutional powers with an impeachment inquiry.

So it seems that if their goal was really to get to the bottom of what happened, making as strong a case as possible, they’d keep going. But they aren’t.

2. Stand up for the rule of law

Another purpose of the impeachment effort is to defend the rule of law by standing up to an abuse of power by President Trump.

This is what has motivated many Democratic activists and what may have finally spurred moderates assessing the Ukraine scandal to finally get off the fence: the idea that Trump has gone too far and that impeachment is the only remedy. That Trump has committed egregious misconduct so he must be sanctioned for it. It’s that simple.

If your goal is just to reprimand Trump for an abuse of power by impeaching him, then of course that goal will be served by, well, impeaching him, and whether it’s done quickly or slowly doesn’t matter all that much.

The problem is what happens afterward in the Senate. If Trump is easily acquitted, as appears likely, on something close to a party-line vote in the Senate, it’s unclear whether the rule of law will have been defended at all. Then, if Trump is reelected after being impeached, he’ll be vindicated further.

Impeachment supporters would respond to this by asking, well, what should we do, nothing? And there’s no good answer. The best they can hope for may be a symbolic reprimand of Trump.

3. Try to actually remove Trump from office

Still, Democrats of a particularly optimistic persuasion might be holding onto hope that a political earthquake will actually happen, that the impeachment inquiry just might remove Trump from office after all, however unlikely that may seem. And it seems ... very unlikely, given that 67-vote requirement and Republican unity.

Still, that’s a goal that would very clearly be served by a more prolonged investigation in search of some even more damning evidence that might finally shake Trump’s support among the GOP. Moving to a vote now, by contrast, means admitting failure.

4. Damage Trump politically

Another purpose of the impeachment inquiry could well be to hurt Trump’s political standing in the hope of making his election in 2020 less likely. Despite all the high-minded rhetoric about the rule of law, this is politics, after all.

And, importantly, this goal could theoretically be achieved regardless of what Republicans do in the Senate. If Democrats feel that the GOP won’t stand up for the rule of law, an impeachment inquiry could be a tool to try and urge the voters to stand up for it in November 2020.

Some Democrats have also said this goal would best be served by broadening the impeachment inquiry. Ukrainian politics and smears of the Bidens may not be what voters really care about, in this line of thinking. Why not go after potential corrupt Trump business practices, allegations of sexual assault, government malfeasance like the family separation policy, or a whole host of other topics?

The problem here, as mentioned above, is the House map. It is possible that something can be bad politically for both Trump and for those crucial House Democrats in Trump-supporting districts — Democrats who generally hope to stress their moderation and areas of agreement with Trump, not their disagreements with him.

And Pelosi has clearly calculated that a focus on impeachment is bad for those Democrats and, accordingly, bad for her chances of remaining speaker.

Whether that calculation is correct is debatable. Theoretically, if an impeachment inquiry damages Trump, it could hurt Republicans and help Democrats across the country, even those in tough districts. But so far, it’s not clear that Trump has been hurt by the inquiry — his approval rating is essentially unchanged from where it was before the scandal broke. (Opinion on impeachment has moved, but overall opinion on Trump hasn’t moved.) And, as mentioned, those swing district Democrats are feeling the heat.

5. Just get it over with

Finally, there’s one other possible purpose for this whole impeachment inquiry effort, which may come off as cynical but arguably explains Democratic leaders’ behavior better than anything else.

That is: The reason for moving ahead with impeachment now is to at long last dispense with the base’s unceasing demand for impeachment.

All year, Pelosi’s new majority has been under pressure from activists and certain of its members to move forward with impeaching Trump. All year, she has believed impeachment is a political loser and that Trump’s acquittal is certain. All year, she has been trying to stave this off.

But the demands kept coming, and once the Ukraine scandal broke, she agreed to move ahead. Now, it’s clear that the only way to get Democratic voters to stop demanding Trump’s impeachment is to actually impeach him. And, in this line of thinking, the sooner the better.

That will kick things over to the Senate, which will acquit Trump. That is, after all, how this thing was always going to end. And then Democrats can, at long last, move on to something else.

Impeachment supporters will cry foul here. They will say that only if impeachment was done differently — perhaps with more months of hearings, perhaps by exploring topics other than Ukraine, perhaps with more effective Democratic leadership — it could have succeeded.

Perhaps. But the way things have played out so far is quite close to what Pelosi would have predicted. Voters’ opinions about Trump have remained remarkably entrenched, as they have for the past two years. And congressional Republicans haven’t abandoned him, which means he’s here to stay.

The impeachment investigation wasn’t a sham — far from it. It surfaced new information and helped nail down the facts of an apparent abuse of power by the president of the United States. It will likely result in a historic reprimand of Trump’s conduct as he becomes the third president ever to be impeached. But those who had greater expectations will probably end up disappointed.