House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has recognized that if the public is not in favor of impeachment, there will be no pressure on Senate Republicans to vote for removal, President Donald Trump will be acquitted and he and his followers will feel vindicated. As a result, Trump and the Republicans might get the lift they need for re-election. She has not bought into the idea that the public will warm to impeachment as the proceedings unfold.
I have generally been sympathetic to her position, in large part because Democrats have been unable to communicate in concise and vivid terms the “high crimes and misdemeanors” at issue.
Trump, through a fog of lies and obstruction, has made the Russia investigation unintelligible for most Americans. (For this reason, I favor emphasis on egregious corruption, which is easier to explain and prove.) It is politically untenable at this point to use the Mueller report as the basis for impeachment.
However, with the allegations (and virtual public confession) that Trump went to a foreign power, Ukraine, to dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden, his most likely opponent, and may even have extorted Ukraine using taxpayer money, the calculus has changed — dramatically so. So Pelosi announced Tuesday that House Democrats will launch an impeachment inquiry on the matter.
Unlike the Mueller investigation, the collusion at issue is discrete, simple and, in all likelihood, easy to prove. Witnesses in addition to the whistleblower may include former officials who have no reason to abide by Trump’s bogus executive-immunity claims. Subpoenaed to testify, I suspect people like former director of national intelligence Daniel Coats and his deputy Sue Gordon, as well as former national security adviser John Bolton, would testify honestly. From factually specific news reports (e.g., confirming whether Trump asked the Ukrainian president eight times to find dirt on Biden), we know the proof and the witnesses are out there. Moreover, his henchman Rudy Giuliani, acting in the capacity of Trump’s fixer, is protected by no privilege. (For one thing, he’s already talked openly about his conduct.)
Trump doesn’t seem to dispute the facts. Rather, he is trying to prevent concrete, glaring evidence from emerging. He seems to think it’s perfectly fine to suggest that a foreign power help him win an election.
Given all that, impeachment may look very different. A single article of impeachment based on an incontrovertible abuse of power would make Democrats’ job much easier. The difficultly that at-risk Republicans face in explaining to voters why they countenance such conduct begins to outweigh any downside for Democrats in pursuing impeachment, even if the eventual outcome is acquittal in the Senate.
Imagine Senate races in 2020 for Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and others outside of deep-red America. So, Sen. Collins, you think it is perfectly fine to go to a foreign power for information relevant to our election? Sen. Tillis, if your opponent suggests that, say, China dig up dirt on you, is that fair game?
The argument for Democrats that Republicans are spineless lackeys who have violated their oaths of office is far easier to maintain than the Republicans’ assertion that it’s nuts to remove a president who questions a foreign power about the conduct of a potential rival.
I do not expect enough Republicans will vote to remove Trump under any circumstances. I think they fear Trump and his base too much and are hollow little men who find it impossible to rise above partisan loyalty and ambition.
However, the political downside for Democrats will be small and, it is always possible, the media might actually make the public grasp the severity of the conduct and the Republicans on the ballot might actually pay a steep price.
The House was right to move swiftly on this. In this case, doing the right thing coincides with doing the politically smart thing.