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Impeachment Won’t Be The Trump-Ending Silver Bullet Democrats Expect


Since Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, the party’s base has become even hotter to impeach President Trump. More surprising, some key arguments for impeachment have gained traction on the right, and not just among NeverTrumpers. The time for this ultimate confrontation may have arrived.

Obviously, impeachment is overwhelmingly popular among rank-and-file Democrats. In their minds, Trump is already guilty of the highest crime: defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016 without even winning the popular vote.

In December, a CNN poll found 80 percent of Democrats support impeachment. In November, a Monmouth poll found 70 percent Democratic support. A recent Harvard-Harris poll found only 63 percent support, but the option of censure drew another 24 percent. The left’s rapturous response to Yoni Appelbaum’s pro-impeachment cover essay in The Atlantic ––and to the now-disputed BuzzFeed News story claiming Trump directed his lawyer to lie to Congress about a 2016 Moscow real estate deal––are further indicators of lefty hunger.

Hungry For Impeachment

Democrats want impeachment. They want it so bad it’s driving them mad. They’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more Congress.

When Republicans controlled the House, they had good reason to avoid indulging that madness or encouraging future madness. Now, Democratic leadership seems inclined to apply a wet compress to their base’s fever instead of letting it run its course. But some on the right, looking at the evolving situation, are starting to echo impeachment advocates.

For example, Appelbaum’s essay argues Democrats must “bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs.” Moreover:

Congress can’t outsource its responsibilities to federal prosecutors. No one knows when [Special Counsel] Mueller’s report will arrive, what form it will take, or what it will say. Even if Mueller alleges criminal misconduct on the part of the president, under Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted. Nor will the host of [typical] congressional hearings fulfill that branch’s obligations.

The core premise is strong: impeachment is fundamentally a political process assigned by the Constitution to Congress. Most of Appelbaum’s quoted assertions have been advanced by National Review editor Rich Lowry––in both “The Editors” podcast and in print––in reaction to the story that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation of the president after Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey. Lowry was hardly alone on the right in being alarmed by that story.

Per Lowry, “this is the role of [Rep.] Adam Schiff and Co., not the FBI. I’m sure I’ll disagree with how the congressional Democrats handle these matters going forward. But there’s no doubt under our system about the legitimacy of their taking them up.” Also, Lowry, like many on the right, believes Trump is getting impeached no matter what. The real question is about timing.

Issues With the Mueller Report

Democratic leadership has been avoiding their base’s demands, claiming everyone should wait for the Robert Mueller report. However, as National Review legal eagle Andrew McCarthy argues, the special counsel model lacks transparency and “law-enforcement scrutiny of a duly elected president harms the capacity of the country to govern itself.”

McCarthy could have added the investigatory model creates issues of accountability. Trump cannot terminate or curtail the investigation without it becoming the eventual basis of an article of impeachment, which insulates the investigation from serious executive branch oversight.

Furthermore, as Attorney General-designate William Barr’s Senate confirmation testimony recently made clear, there is no guarantee a Mueller report will be drafted, made public, or would address all of the topics of interest to Congress or the public. Barr vindicates Appelbaum’s argument on the facts, as Lowry and McCarthy do from the standpoint of constitutional governance.

Democratic leaders have other reasons to let a special counsel do their dirty work. Impeachment is popular with Democrats, but unpopular with everyone else. Appelbaum acknowledges the current record would not persuade a GOP-controlled Senate to convict. Impeachment would be, to paraphrase Eric Stratton, a really stupid and futile gesture.

Democrats regained control of the House in part by urging candidates to downplay impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and co. probably don’t want impeachment at center stage in the 2020 election, though the presidential primaries will almost certainly go there. Ironically, the best chance Democrats currently have to “reverse the 2016 election” is to defeat him in 2020. Pretending Democrats do not want to resort to the extraordinary measure of impeachment may benefit Democrats; it is increasingly unclear that shadow play benefits Republicans.

Impeachment Might Not Work

Indeed, if a Democratic House impeaches President Trump, he would be better positioned to fight back in a Republican Senate. Trump’s Twitter feed is not an ideal way of addressing the blizzard of occasionally complex accusations made against him. His surrogates occasionally fuel the fires. House hearings and a Senate trial would focus and structure the debate.

Some on the right have worked to establish the investigation of the Trump campaign as the work of biased FBI operatives promoting the Clinton campaign’s unverified opposition research. This effort largely preaches to the choir. In a Senate trial, Team Trump could make his case, largely unfiltered, to a mammoth, trans-partisan, nationwide audience on live television.

Television raises a final, semi-lighter point. Certain phenomena take on their own logic and gravitational pull. Trump’s ascent from real estate mogul to reality television star to GOP nominee to president is such a phenomenon. Many have observed part of this gravitational pull is voters desire––stated and unstated––to see where this thing goes.

This phenomenon is part of the larger phenomenon of America’s increasing conflation of politics with entertainment. In the latter sphere, Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously posited: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The controversies regarding Trump and Russia date back to the campaign. Theories about Trump and Russia have been fueled by Democrats (and occasionally by Trump himself) ever since. Denying the Trump Show the spectacle of an impeachment proceeding, perhaps including a cameo from Chief Justice John Roberts in a special impeachment robe that would shame the Hogwarts faculty, would cheat the audience. And in this populist era, the audience must be served.