White House

Impeachment Is Unpredictable

House Speaker House Nancy Pelosi speaks during a media briefing ahead of the House vote authorizing an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, October 31, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
We don’t know what new revelations might emerge or whether they would unnerve the president’s GOP support.

Yes, it already seems like two eternities ago. But do you realize that, if we could turn back time just five weeks, no one would have heard of the “whistleblower”? Those of us who can find Ukraine on a map would be back to ignoring it — except to wonder when and why it stopped being the Ukraine. (It has to do with breaking free of Soviet tyranny, by the way.)

There is a lesson in there about unpredictability that the unpredictable Trump White House would do well to internalize.

See, nobody knows for sure how impeachment proceedings will go. Of course, we have heard again and again over the last five weeks (or is it three years?) that it is inconceivable Donald Trump could ever be ousted from the presidency. His firewall against being stripped of power (and, his supporters hoped, against the House’s even bothering to impeach him in the first place) has always been Republican control of the Senate, where a two-thirds supermajority is required to remove a president. Assuming all Democrats voted to convict on any article of impeachment, Trump would be assured of acquittal if he lost no more than 20 Republicans.

Notice, though, that there’s always been a caveat to such confident predictions: As long as there is nothing other than what we already know about.

Well, to repeat, just five weeks ago, we were all still muttering about obstruction of the Mueller probe, after years of muttering about collusion with Russia. There was some other grousing: a little emoluments clause here, a few undisclosed tax returns there, the porn-star payoff dressed up (as it were) into a campaign-finance violation, etc. Until late September, no one had heard of what has consumed us ever since: the whistleblower, the Hunter Biden hijinks, Ambassador Bill Taylor, the hard-to-follow DNC-server conspiracy theory, Rudy Does Kyiv, and so on.

Just six weeks ago, John Bolton was a disgruntled former national-security adviser Democrats loved to hate. Now, they’re thinking of him as a witness for the prosecution.

The point is that life around Hurricane Donald changes fast. Are you really so sure there’s nothing else out there? After three years in which the script seems to flip every three hours or so?

Impeachment is the unknown. Once the unwieldy, rarely used machinery is up and running, no one knows for sure how things will shake out. Richard Nixon won what was then the biggest landslide election in modern American history, yet after less than two years of impeachment hearings, he was too unpopular to survive. Bill Clinton’s trysts with a White House intern were so appalling that, if acknowledged early on, he probably wouldn’t have survived. Months of impeachment sniping ended up working to his advantage. Clearly, it makes a difference which way the media go — annihilation mode for Republicans, salvation mode for Democrats. But how much difference the Trump-hostile media will make depends on what else is out there.

We don’t know that.

We do know this: Once the impeachment train has groaned to a start and shaken off the rust, its momentum tends to carry Congress away. It was obvious that Clinton was not going to be removed, but in their fervor House Republicans impeached him anyway. In Trump’s case, Speaker Nancy Pelosi started out as an impeachment naysayer, and now she’s leading the charge — to the delight of the Democrats’ base, who’ve similarly spurred the 2020 primary field to impeachment fervor. The country, of course, is not made up of hard-left Trump-bashers, so smart Democrats know impeachment could blow up on them. Yet, it’s full speed ahead nonetheless. It’s hard to stop this thing once it gets rolling.

At this juncture, articles of impeachment based on the Ukraine scenario appear certain. There will be at least one charge of abusing the president’s foreign-relations power by encouraging a foreign government to investigate American citizens (the Bidens) for violations of the foreign government’s laws. A second article will likely allege that the president engaged in that abuse of power to further another one — specifically, to have the 2020 election influenced by the foreign power. Perhaps there will be an allegation that the president “extorted” Ukraine, or in effect sought a “bribe,” by withholding vital defense aid to squeeze Kyiv into probing the Bidens. Almost certainly, there will be a charge of obstructing Congress’s investigation — for Democrats, it will be more effective to impeach Trump for failing to turn the over scads of information they will demand than to fight the president’s privilege claims in court, where Democrats could lose.

If the articles of impeachment are as just outlined, they would not move Senate Republicans toward removal. This is big wind, no rain. No matter what the president may have contemplated, nothing terrible actually happened. The Ukrainians got their aid. They did not have to commit to investigating the Bidens. And if this escapade has any discernible effect on the 2020 election, it will likely be to Trump’s detriment, not the Democrats’. Sure, Joe Biden’s candidacy takes a hit, but that was going to happen anyway — which is why Democrats have not shied from an impeachment push in which, inevitably, the former vice president becomes collateral damage.

But then again, we don’t know if this is all there is.

Democrats had their whistleblower held in reserve for a while before they decided it was time to pounce. Are they holding anything else? And whether they’re holding it or not, is there anything else? As we’ve seen, Trump is unorthodox (how’s that for euphemism?). His irregular behavior does not have to be materially damaging for Democrats and the press to portray it as the end of the Republic as we know it (see, e.g., Collusion, Russia).

In the past, when new revelations have emerged, it has made no difference — just another day in the Trump presidency. But now things have changed. Any new misconduct claims will unfold while congressional Democrats have impeachment proceedings up and running. That could make things dicey.

While congressional Republicans will stand with the president for now, there is no shortage of those who are not fans. Trump saw how fast his support can evaporate when he moved a few dozen U.S. troops out of harm’s way before Turkey rolled in and over the Syrian Kurds: The House condemned him in an overwhelming bipartisan resolution; the Republican majority leader of the Senate took to the pages of the Washington Post to rebuke him; and the rest of the senators are pondering sanctions against Turkey to express their dismay.

If some new allegation of misconduct were to emerge while Democrats have an impeachment inquiry underway, we do not know whether that would unnerve the president’s GOP support. We are in territory rarely charted. People who claim to be sure how the journey will go are kidding themselves.

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