Members Only | March 21, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

On Impeachment, the Onus Is Shifting

We know the political case against it. Here's one for it.

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Charles Blow said recently that he now favors impeaching the president. This is a reversal for the Times columnist. He had been an “impeachment skeptic,” he said, but evidence of Donald Trump’s wrongdoing is so vast it’s morally imperative to proceed.

He declared his change-of-heart around the time House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that impeaching Trump “isn’t worth it.” The idea here is that the Republican Party controls the Senate. All things being equal, there’s little chance, if any chance, of getting two-thirds of that chamber to vote against him. What’s the point of impeachment by the House, Pelosi said essentially, if the Senate won’t remove him?

Blow and Pelosi so far represent, I think, the dominant camps in the impeachment debate (among Democrats, of course). On the one side are the moralists, who do not doubt the evidence of Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors.” They are focused on violations of his oath of office, and the need for justice in the service of the republic. On the other are the “realists” (let’s call them) who don’t necessarily disagree with the moralists on the merits of Trump’s case, but worry more than the moralists do about the political result of failing to prosecute the president to the ends of justice.

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Realist concerns are not as inconsequential as some allege. Hanging over the debate is the specter of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. For those who don’t know, it was a transparently cynical attempted coup d’etat over his lying to a grand jury about oral sex. The Republicans knew it. The Democrats knew it. The public knew it. Indeed, Clinton had never been more popular than during that time. His party won back House seats in the 1998 midterm elections, which almost never happens in a president’s second term. Newt Gingrich, who led the Republican charge, lost the House speakership.

For these reasons, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that this could happen again, only the Democrats would be where the GOP ended up. As Scott Lemieux put it recently: “The only considerations of impeaching Trump with no hope of removal are political, and there’s every reason to think that the downside far exceeds the upside.”

That brings me to the minority voices among realists. Here is skepticism of the claim that an unsuccessful attempt at removing Trump would hurt Democrats. Where did the GOP end up? They lost seats in 1998. OK, what else? They controlled the House until 2000, won it back in 2002. They controlled the Senate all the way to 2006. They won the presidency in 2000 and 2004. Whence the fallout? At best, it was short-term.

Another potential flaw in the majority realist view is the presumption that Senate Republicans will never—never, ever—turn on Trump. While party loyalty can’t be overstated, Trump’s weakness, even among Senate Republicans, should not be understated. We had perhaps the clearest view of his weakness last week when the Senate voted to rescind his emergency declaration. (He aims to bypass the Congress to build a border wall.) Trump wrongly exceeded his constitutional authority. Congress rightly took it back. Yes, Trump vetoed the bill, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that Senate Republicans bucked him when they had strong incentive for doing so.

Even if Republicans ultimately stick with Trump, his margin of survival will matter. In 2020, 22 Republicans in the Senate are up for reelection. The majority realist view against impeachment is either/or. Get rid of Trump or don’t bother trying. But that overlooks an opportunity to jam 22 Republicans between loyalty to Trump and hard evidence of the president committing felonies before and after taking office and of his conspiring with a host of bad actors to defraud the electorate of the United States.

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There is one last political argument in favor of impeachment: it could wound Donald Trump mortally. The right-wing media will rally to his defense. We know this. But the right-wing media’s success in defining political reality is proportional to the mainstream news’ willingness to play along. It’s hard to imagine it playing along amid hearings and testimony revealing more and more evidence of presidential criminality. The more the mainstream news focuses on facts, the less impact the right-wing media has. The less impact the right-wing media has, the weaker this president becomes. Trump might survive an attempt at removal. Would he recover? I doubt it.

I don’t know if the majority realists are right. I don’t know if the minority realists are either. I do know that political arguments for and against have equal weight. (By the way, Pelosi did not close the door on impeachment; indeed, she is inviting Democrats to force her hand.) That said, I do think the burden of proof will end up shifting.

The onus has been on the moralists to prove the political case for impeachment. But as the Robert Mueller investigation climaxes, and as House Committee investigations crescendo, the onus will be on the realists to prove the political case against it.

—John Stoehr


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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