January 4, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Impeachment Isn’t the Only Way
We don't have to impeach "the motherf****r" for justice to prevail.
Today’s hoo-ha comes courtesy of freshman MOC Rashida Tlaib, who told a crowd of supporters Thursday, after being sworn in, that bullies don’t win. Now, she said, with Democrats in charge of the US House, “we’re gonna impeach the motherf****er.”
A hoo-ha, huh? Alas, yes. Right-wing media outlets naturally jumped on Tlaib’s cussing as evidence that the newly empowered Democrats are secretly scheming to remove a sitting president. Even Jonathan Chait, a liberal thinker over at New York magazine, lamented that Tlaib’s salty language was a gift to the president.
It isn’t. I’m so confident I won’t bother defending Tlaib. (Anyway, she’s very capable of defending herself!) I mean, we all know that the president is Donald Trump, right?
But Tlaib’s remark gives occasion to return our attention to impeachment, and to speculation I have seen over the last week that is worth highlighting and debating. That speculation is that both parties will have so much incentive to get rid of Trump that they will strike a deal with him: resign in exchange for preemptive pardons.
Elizabeth Drew, whom I adore, was the first, to my knowledge, to suggest this possibility. Before the holiday weekend, she wrote, in the Times, that “the evident dangers of keeping an out-of-control president in office might well impel politicians in both parties, not without controversy, to want to make a deal to get him out of there.”
I don’t take The Nation’s Jon Wiener as seriously, but he argued the same thing Elizabeth Drew did. The end, he wrote in the LA Times, will come most likely when “Trump resigns and gets an advance pardon.” Wiener expanded Drew’s point. He said the pardon won’t be for Trump only. It’ll be for his adult children, too.
I’m going to set aside, for now, that Trump is facing legal jeopardy from multiple fronts. Presidential pardons apply to federal crimes only. If the Trump Organization is found guilty of state crimes, the president’s fortunes are in God’s hands alone.
But let’s take the thesis at face-value: the parties will come to an agreement with the president. I’m guessing this would be acceptable to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in that it’s preferable to the alternative, which is impeachment. The incentives would have to be awesome for Pelosi and the party leadership to take that politically perilous road. With a deal, the Democrats could avoid impeachment, and focus on 2020.
Drew thinks the incentives are already awesome. Trump is dangerous to life, limb, and liberty. But I think Drew underestimates how much the Democrats are willing to tolerate suffering at the hands of this president. I suspect most things (short of nuclear war, of course) are tolerable. Whatever happens, Trump and the GOP will be blamed. The Democrats are the party of good governance, but they are still a political party. The more the electorate dislikes Trump, the more it likes the Democratic Party.
For this reason, I suspect the Democrats won’t see enough incentive to strike a pardon-for-resignation deal with the president. Yes, Trump is out of control and dangerous, but depending on how out of control and dangerous he is, that is probably not going to be enough to outweigh the benefit of exploiting a categorically weak president while the Democrats build their legislative agenda in advance of 2020.
And I haven’t even touched on the backlash leaders would face from their base if they hinted at a pardon-for-resignation deal. I said Tlaib’s “motherf****er” comment will blow over, but make no mistake what that means: It means there’s a broad appetite inside the party for this horrible president to face the reckoning he’s due.
The day before taking the gavel, Pelosi said it was an “open discussion” whether a sitting president can be indicted. (The context was a Department of Justice guidance to federal prosecutors, a vestige of Watergate, saying that a sitting president is too busy to defend himself in court.) As I said Thursday, Pelosi is not a woman who says anything without considering the politics of it. If she’s saying a sitting president can be indicted, she’s prepared to be on the winning side of that discussion.
More precisely, Pelosi may desire indictment over the alternative, which, again, is impeaching the president. Impeaching any president is risky, because impeaching any president is very, very unpopular. American voters don’t like the idea of national elections being overturned by anyone but other American voters.
Indictment, on the other hand, is risk-free. It’s about the rule of law. If I were the leader of a party trying to rebuild itself by exploiting the weakness of a sitting president, I’d want to keep that “open discussion” as open as I can for as long as I can.
That would be true even if indictment never happens. As I argued yesterday, Trump is growing so weak that at some point in 2019, we can reasonably expect someone from inside the GOP to challenge him in a primary, and in that challenge may be the seeds of his doom. Historically, same-party challengers don’t win, but they morally wound incumbents so much that the opposing party’s candidate prevails. Then, once Trump is out of office, all bets are off. The presidency won’t shield him from the rule of law.
True, lots of Democrats want to “impeach the mother****ker.”
But that’s not the only avenue toward justice.
Politics is heartbreaking!
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.