Democratic-party leaders have made one thing clear about their triumphant return to power in the House of Representatives: They have no intention of being dragged down into a premature and futile battle over an attempt to impeach Donald Trump.
Throughout their successful midterm campaign, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership were largely careful to avoid threats of impeachment. It’s true that figures such as incoming Judiciary Committee chairman Jerold Nadler and incoming Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff have spoken of proof of collusion with Russia and even about “impeachable offenses” of which they think Trump is guilty. But Pelosi’s team has been careful to avoid committing themselves to action on impeachment.
Such a stance is both prudent and realistic, since proving the president’s guilt of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a lot more difficult than merely expressing contempt or horror at the latest outrageous thing Trump has said or tweeted. More to the point, Democrats know the entire exercise would almost certainly be futile. Even if they could pass a bill of impeachment on a party-line vote in the House, it’s highly unlikely that a Republican-controlled Senate would provide the two-thirds vote to impeach a Republican president.
More to the point, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders — especially the two or three dozen Democrats who are planning on running for president in 2020 — understand that impeachment wouldn’t necessarily help them defeat Trump for reelection, since it would allow him to argue that Democrats merely want to relitigate 2016 rather than provide solutions to the country’s problems. Instead, they want to prove that they are pragmatic and intent on governing. And with the immediate challenge of dealing with a standoff over a government shutdown that shows no signs of being resolved in the short run because of the dispute over funding for a border wall, House Democrats will have plenty to do and lots of ways to vent their rage at Trump without being pulled into the impeachment rabbit hole.
But in spite of all the good reasons why impeachment is a terrible idea for the Democrats, they’re going to wind up doing it anyway. In spite of Pelosi’s best intentions, 2019 is likely to be a year in which impeachment becomes the focus of American politics.
The push toward impeachment is rooted in a basic fact of contemporary American politics: Democrats don’t merely oppose the Trump presidency; they believe it is illegitimate.
Such sentiments are fueled by the widespread belief among liberals that in one way or another, the Trump campaign did engage in some form of collusion with Russia and “stole” the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton. Proof of such a conspiracy has yet to surface. But faith that such proof must exist has been fed by every development in the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, which has provoked orgies of generally uninformed speculation in the media that the silver bullet that will slay Trump is within reach of investigators.
But belief in Trump’s illegitimacy goes deeper than the search for proof of collusion.
The transgressive nature of Trump’s presidency and his refusal to abide by existing norms in terms of his behavior and statements may be part of what endears him to the Republican base. But it is also why much of the country believes him to be not merely wrong, but abhorrent.
Trump’s trolling of Democrats has been an effective political tactic in many respects, but it also makes impeachment an attractive option for the Left. The anger of the Democratic base toward him should not be underestimated or seen as merely another tool in the party’s toolkit. It is given expression on a daily basis in the mainstream media, whose coverage, as former New York Times editor Jill Abramson recently noted, long ago crossed over from merely critical to openly biased against him and has a power and force that the septuagenarians at the head of the House Democratic caucus may not be able to control in the coming months.
Pelosi also should not underestimate the possibility that the investigations begun by Nadler, Schiff, and other committee chairmen this month will take on a momentum of their own. The leadership hopes that they will merely harass the administration with subpoenas and negative news cycles, making it harder for Trump to govern. But whether or not they find any real criminality, the atmosphere created by the plethora of charges will inevitably encourage pro-impeachment members of the House — egged on by activists such as billionaire Tom Steyer, who has advocated impeachment — to take steps Pelosi would rather avoid.
Moreover, while the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, which will be in full swing by the summer, ought to be a reason against seeking Trump’s ouster before November 2020, the process by which so many prominent Democrats will be seeking to ingratiate themselves with the party’s base will also create an engine for impeachment. All it will take is for one of the credible contenders to endorse the idea, and it will be difficult for any of the others to oppose it.
Pelosi’s best argument for putting off impeachment will be to wait until Mueller files his report. If the special counsel continues his probe through the end of the year, that will enable Democrats to avoid having to try to impeach the president. By May, Mueller will have been in place for two full years. While he ought to have wrapped up his investigation by now, he may choose to continue in office more or less indefinitely. That would provide Democratic leaders with a good argument for waiting, but it might also tempt Trump into terminating the probe, leading to a confrontation Democrats will describe as a constitutional crisis that will also make an impeachment vote a certainty.
On the other hand, if Mueller does file his report within the next few months, it is equally a given that any finding short of a specific exoneration of Trump on collusion will be seized upon by enough House Democrats as providing fodder for impeachment to make it impossible for Pelosi to resist their efforts.
Lastly, the faith of many Democrats in Trump’s illegitimacy will also lead them to continue to underestimate the president’s support among Republicans. The bifurcated nature of our political system is such that few of the president’s opponents engage with Republicans or watch, read, or listen to conservative outlets where support for Trump persists. Instead, they will, like veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew, who recently wrote in the Times about the inevitability of impeachment, think that sooner or later the GOP will abandon Trump in the same manner that Republicans dumped Richard Nixon once proof of his guilt in the Watergate scandal surfaced.
Short of similar tapes being produced that showed Trump in conversation with Russians about stealing the election, that isn’t likely. Trump’s popularity with Republicans remains high because he has largely adopted conservative stances on immigration, taxes, deregulation, and judicial nominations. Even when Trump displeases some Republicans, as he did with his announcement of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, animus toward his critics is so great that it mutes criticism of the administration.
But even though anti-Trump Republicans are a small minority, developments like Senator Mitt Romney’s broadside against the president in the Washington Post will continue to encourage Democrats to think that bipartisan support for impeachment will emerge once Mueller’s report is delivered.
As with every other prediction based on the normal rules of politics that prevailed in the pre-Trump era, the belief that impeachment is impossible will be debunked by the toxic, divisive political culture that now prevails. Trump’s personality and the implacable belief on the part of his opponents that his presidency must be erased are likely to make impeachment the main topic of debate before the end of 2019.