White House

Do They Mean It This Time?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces the House of Representatives will launch a formal inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump, September 24, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The Democrats have been desperately searching for a pretext for impeachment that won’t get them laughed out of Washington. Is the latest scandal it?

I  don’t envy Nancy Pelosi.

The base of her party has been apoplectic for the better part of three years. Not without help — from the moment that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, elected Democrats have carefully built up a sense of panic and scandal around the Trump administration, a sense that, in fairness, has been unwittingly and clumsily abetted by the behavior of the president and his aides. Escalated by the breathless outrage of the media, a shroud of illegitimacy has enveloped the Trump White House from Day 1, and this shroud has, in turn, allowed the base of the Democratic party to avoid facing democracy’s colder realities, such as: Sometimes you lose. And it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault — not Russia, not racism, not rednecks — but your own.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to pretend otherwise.

First came efforts to undo the Trump presidency via the Electoral College by flipping enough electors to reverse the result (watching progressives, I must add, make use of the electoral college’s anti-democratic features was quite a sight to behold). After that failed, a California Democrat launched an “Impeach Trump Leadership” PAC, meant to coopt the impeachment pretexts du jour — emoluments-clause violations, speculative mental ailments, Representative Al Green’s impassioned say-so — and give each of them something like professional sanction. Then, of course, came the Russia probe, with all its unseemly partisan pomp: the trivial “bombshells,” the seething media firestorm, the discursive public hearings, the televised predawn arrest of Roger Stone (helicopters in the air!), and the theatrical build-up and relative inconsequence of the Mueller Report.

All the while, the adult wing of Pelosi’s party sat idly by, never drawing any substantive line between itself and the ceaseless outrage and hyperbolic furor that so characterized their fellow Democrats. Pelosi, for her part, realized the electoral harm that had been wrought by a rabid, vindictive coterie of progressives in her party. She told The New York Times Magazine:

Yes, on the left there is a Pound of Flesh Club, and they just want to do to them what they did to us. . . . I have those who want to be for impeachment and for abolishing ICE. Two really winning issues for us, right? In the districts we have to win? I don’t even think they’re the right things to do. If the evidence from Mueller is compelling, it should be compelling for Republicans as well, and that may be a moment of truth. But that’s not where we are.

But now that House Democrats might — might! — finally have sufficient predicate to pursue impeachment, Pelosi faces another challenge: to convince the American people that this iteration of Trump hysteria is the genuine article, and that this animal is different from the one that gave birth to Rob Reiner, Keith Olbermann, and the rest of the farcical hyenas who made such a mockery of the Russia probe.

The latest pretext for impeachment has, at minimum, the whiff of impropriety: President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky includes references to military armaments (Zelensky brings this up, saying, “We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States”) and reciprocity in the same conversation where Trump solicits an investigation into his political opponent. Much of the alleged quid pro quo occurs in the conversation’s subtext. Ukraine needs our aid for its conflict with Russia, which, as Michael Brendan Dougherty points out in these pages, is a ubiquitous reality in American–Ukrainian diplomacy. But both Pelosi and the American electorate know that even if this Ukrainian phone call serves as an adequate predicate to impeach a duly elected president, that impeachment — whether it’s because Trump is a boor, because he’s trying to “take away health care,” because he’s a serial philanderer, because he allegedly slept with a porn star, because he has a “mental illness,” because he lost the popular vote, because he is ignorant on most matters of domestic and foreign affairs, whatever — has been the stated goal of much of Pelosi’s caucus from the day Trump was elected.

It’s hard for me to shake the feeling, in other words, that impeaching Donald Trump has always been the Democrats’ intended end, begging for sufficient means from the moment he won the White House.

Pelosi knows that. She also knows that, barring a pro-impeachment consensus in both chambers, a Senate acquittal could well redound to the president’s electoral benefit in 2020. But after seven moderate members of the House cosigned an op-ed in the Washington Post voicing their support for impeachment, she also knows she could lose her caucus. “Just impeaching Trump for his bad behavior isn’t worth it,” she told the New Yorker. “But, if he challenges our system of checks and balances as he is doing, if he undermines our democracy, our electoral system, as he is doing, if he undermines his own oath of office as he is doing, it is a challenge to our Constitution.”

Pelosi hopes this latest allegation meets muster. Perhaps the seventh time will be the charm.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since it first appeared, to note that President Zelensky, not President Trump, raised the topic of military armaments.

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