My rule of thumb for how to think about the endless chain of outrages and counter-outrages that compose the Trump era is that every scandal will proceed in whatever way is maximally damaging to public confidence in our core institutions. Each twist and turn and revelation will give everyone on all sides of our politics just enough rope to hang themselves—just enough reason to believe that their side is in the right, the other side knows it but is corrupt, and the only way to get justice is to recognize that there is no alternative to stretching the norms and rules of our politics a little in this particular case. After all, you can bet the other side wouldn’t think twice if the tables were turned.
That is certainly how the inexplicably sudden and bizarre Ukraine scandal looks to be shaping up. The president’s behavior seems plainly corrupt on its face yet is also susceptible to being justified if you line up just the right combination of implausible-but-not-impossible rationalizations and don’t think too hard about what our presidents are supposed to be and do. Each individual explanation could work. And could they all be right? If the last few years have taught us anything it’s surely that anything is possible.
But in the laying out of both the case against Trump and the case in his defense you find the pattern that has repeated in these last few years by which serious people end up backing themselves into conspiracy theories because they want the world to make sense. The incoherent jumble of Trump’s own mind, backed now with the enormous power of the American presidency, has the capacity to create a real world that doesn’t hang together. When we each try to explain it to ourselves and others, we naturally incline to fill in blanks and sketch connections that might make it all cohere, and so we end up painting perverse conspiracies, most of which are surely false. We can already see that happening in this case, as we all try to reason our way through an avalanche of unfamiliar figures and preposterous events and end up acting like we’ve always had strong views about how many people listen to presidential phone calls and the relative merits of different Ukrainian state prosecutors.
Many conversations with people who have spent a lot of time with Trump these last few years have left me thinking that Trump’s world is probably less perverted than either his detractors or his champions end up suggesting, because it’s less cogent. Why did one thing follow another? The answer is probably just not as lucid as you or I will tend to expect. That doesn’t mean Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, or that he’s not basically a narcissistic thug. It just means that what he knows himself to be doing probably isn’t what people who follow politics think it would be.
But just as that is not quite an indictment of Trump, it is also not quite a defense. The president sometimes acts in ways that are unpresidential by just about every conceivable definition, and the tools available to others to respond are limited and unsatisfactory. That’s one reason why he constantly drives other people to behave in ways that are radically imprudent or at least inappropriate given their institutional roles—and why the result seems always to be yet more reasons for the public to lose confidence in elites of every sort.
This particular scandal is shaping up to be different than past ones, though, because it looks to be drawing a more muscular response from congressional Democrats. This is in part because of the particulars of the case, I’m sure, but it’s also because it happened to coincide with a gradual evolution of attitudes among House Democrats in a way that made Nancy Pelosi’s (reasonable) effort to avert an impeachment showdown a year before an election untenable. A large group of Democrats from relatively moderate districts had reached the point of nearly giving in to the pressure to press for impeachment, and then this strange new lurid tale pushed them all over at once.
Pelosi could see that she had no choice but to give ground, although we ought to notice that she is actually still trying to restrain the effort rather than encourage it. Her announcement that an impeachment inquiry would start was far less than what she would have done if she were following the pattern of the two late-20th century impeachment efforts, against Nixon and Clinton. In those cases, an impeachment inquiry began with a formal vote on the floor of the House to launch one—a vote that made clear at the outset that there was probably support for impeachment. In this case, it began with the Speaker just saying that a series of committee investigations that were already happening would now be considered impeachment inquiries. Pelosi still seems not to want her members to get on the record about impeachment, and may still hope that train can be stopped.
But it probably can’t be. The momentum of this kind of process, once members have made up their minds that they are on the side of impeachment, can be unlike anything else the House of Representatives does. I was a junior staffer in Newt Gingrich’s office during the Clinton impeachment in 1998 (and stayed on for a while after he left, into 1999), and can remember lots of efforts to slow that momentum and lots of events that you would think would have stopped it—like a midterm election gone bad. But once it started, it moved with stunning speed and wasn’t going to stop.
There was a staffer in our press office in those days who liked to make fun of reporters and columnists who were constantly proclaiming that impeachment was dead. I remember him in particular going around to meetings carrying a copy of a Ron Brownstein column from the Los Angeles Times. It was shortly after the 98 mid-terms, and right after Gingrich’s speakership turned out to have been ended by it all. Brownstein was certain that this meant impeachment was over. By the magic of the internet, here is that column, from November 9, 1998. He wrote:
After the election, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) insisted it was business as usual for the impeachment process. Generals in the German High Command probably said the same thing after D-Day. But the reality is that the effort to remove Clinton is like a car that’s been rusting in a ditch for a month. Weeds are growing through the engine. Starting it again will be difficult and restoring any serious momentum, almost impossible. Conservative Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) says flatly: “After the election, I don’t think they are within shouting distance” of the 218 votes needed to impeach the president.
Clinton was impeached a month later, with 228 votes. My colleague carried this column around as a sign of how detached the political press was—from where we were sitting, it seemed crazy to think the process was done. It never really slowed down, and in retrospect it’s amazing how fast it actually moved. The Judiciary Committee voted to start an impeachment inquiry on October 5, 1998, and the Senate trial ended on February 12, 1999. But Brownstein was no fool. Everything he wrote in that column made sense. It just underestimated the intense momentum that the simple decision to start down the road to impeachment could generate.
Maybe this time will be very different. But it probably won’t, particularly because Pelosi now seems to be operating under the logic that the best way to contain the damage from this process to her conference is to get it over with quickly. The Washington Post reported yesterday that “Some Democratic lawmakers and aides said Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations, that they believed impeachment articles could be ready for a House vote around Thanksgiving.” This looks to be starting, and it could be a mad rush.
Does impeachment make sense in this case? I can see how Trump’s words and actions could add up to an impeachable offense here, but I don’t think it makes sense to impeach him for it. Impeachment is a political choice, to be made prudentially, and a year before an election, at a time when public trust in government is so dismally low already, and given that it’s pretty clear how such a process would end, impeachment doesn’t look wise. It would be just another performative exercise that undermines everyone involved.
That’s not to say it would necessarily help or hurt Trump’s re-election. I have no idea. The notion that it would help him by uniting his supporters doesn’t seem all that plausible—I don’t think months of hearing about this Ukraine mess will make people who weren’t already fired up about voting for Trump become so. I also doubt that Trump wants impeachment to happen. He seems to crave legitimacy and affirmation, even though he constantly undermines his chances of attaining them. But this could certainly help Trump by ending Joe Biden’s presidential aspirations (which this scandal seems likely to do now, whether or not an impeachment vote happens). More than anything, it will contribute to the sense that all of our institutions are corrupt and obsessed with petty scandal, and that doesn’t seem like a good idea for anyone.
There’s nothing illegitimate about impeachment here, to be clear. It’s perfectly within the power of the House. And if the House does impeach I think it’s very important that the Senate hold a trial, and not stretch its own rules or play clever games to avoid an unpleasant vote and ignore the impeachment. That would be another institutional disaster, and a huge mistake.
But though it wouldn’t be illegitimate, impeachment would be a bad idea on the whole, regardless of your view of the president. It would make the worst things about the Trump era even worse, in ways maximally damaging to public confidence in our core institutions. So I guess that means it will happen.