The Democrats who don’t want to impeach Donald Trump at this point are afraid of their own shadows. Or maybe the shadows of their big funders.
They say they fear that the move would backfire—as it seems to have done when the House impeached Bill Clinton in 1999 and Slick Willie’s popularity soared.
But the Clinton case is much different from the current situation. Most of the country didn’t really care one way or another about what Clinton had done in his private life. People at the time understood that Clinton was not a corrupt individual, nor was he running a corrupt enterprise. Many people thought it was nobody’s business what two people did with each other behind closed doors. It had no bearing on U.S. security or the ability of Clinton to serve as president. Many people even forgave Clinton his one instance of law-breaking: lying under oath about having had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. They thought as I did at the time—and still do—that lying was inherent in adultery. It’s virtually as impossible to have an affair without lying as it is to get a homerun and not touch first base. Besides, a consensual relationship with an adult is a far cry from Trump’s history of illegality and unethical behavior. Lying about an affair is definitely not the same as breaking campaign finance laws; trying to impede an investigation; manipulating the value of assets up to get a bigger loan and down to avoid taxes; or not reporting it to the FBI when a foreign adversary offers you help to get elected.
Instead of the Clinton case, Democrats should look at the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the almost-impeachment of Richard Nixon for historical precedents. Like Trump, they were both truly guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Johnson endangered American law by impeding reconstruction of the south as a bastion of democracy for all. While there were no political polls in the 1860s, everything we read of the period suggests highly that Johnson’s popularity went down after his impeachment and near-conviction by the Senate. Besides the Watergate burglary and cover-up, Nixon had bombed Cambodia illegally and gone way too far in investigating his perceived domestic enemies. We know Nixon lost the country, because that’s why the GOP finally ended its resistance to impeachment and conviction, and ultimately why Tricky Dick short-circuited the constitutional process for removing a president and resigned. Thus the two times presidents deserved impeachment, the impeachment process did not help their popularity.
Let’s also keep in mind—only a little facetiously—that no president who has faced impeachment was ever elected to the office again. Facetiously because in both Nixon and Clinton’s case, the impeachment proceedings began during his second term, a fact that goes to the heart of the Democrat’s cravenness in not immediately initiating impeachment proceedings. They figure that the people will vote Trump out of office in 2020, and if they don’t then they’ll think about taking care of business.
Others suggest that until the Republicans are on board with convicting in the Senate, impeachment is a waste of time. That argument assumes falsely that impeachment is in of itself a little less than a hand slap.
But as the always perceptive Charles Blow points out in the New York Times, “an impeachment vote in the House has to this point been the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president.” Blow and others argue—and I agree—that impeachment without conviction is nonetheless a severe punishment.
Blow also reminds us that Trump’s approval rating has never vacillated widely the way other modern presidents have. He has stayed in a narrow channel of around 40% no matter what he says or does or others say or do about him. There is therefore not much of a chance that his popularity will soar after an impeachment and non-conviction.
It is true that the several investigations of Trump recently opened by the House will likely reveal more and remind us of many Trump’s wrong doings—illegal or merely despicable. The idea of waiting until the evidence builds up seems prudent until you peruse the Mueller Report and realize that there is already enough to impeach Trump multiple times. The impeachment hearings will allow the House, and maybe the entire country, to see most of the documents being requested in these various committee hearings. One way or another, Trump’s taxes are coming out! So why wait? No need for them to appear before impeachment hearings begin, since they can emerge as part of those hearings.
There is one overarching reason for the House to pursue impeachment. It’s their job and the right thing to do.
As usual, Elizabeth Warren expressed it best, in her tweet advocating the House begin impeachment proceedings: The Mueller Report lays out facts showing that a hostile foreign government attacked our 2016 election to help Donald Trump and Donald Trump welcomed that help. Once elected, Donald Trump obstructed the investigation into that attack. Mueller put the next step in the hands of Congress: “Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.” The correct process for exercising that authority is impeachment.
The Democrats seem to risk little by starting the ball rolling on impeachment. And the reward will be that they did their jobs under the Constitution of the United States.