Since the April 18 release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's damning report detailing the Trump campaign's collaboration with the Russian election interference operation and the president's repeated, blatant efforts to illegally interfere with the subsequent investigation, an often bitter argument has erupted among Democrats about whether to impeach President Donald Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other impeachment skeptics fear polling which suggests lukewarm public support, and the possibility of a Senate acquittal during the 2020 campaign. Meanwhile, proponents want an impeachment process to be launched immediately, both to solidify the base of party supporters who turned out in 2018 and to hold the president accountable for his rampant and unapologetic criminal behavior in office.
It's an important debate, but here's the thing. Both groups might be right.
The future of the republic may in some way hinge on Congress fulfilling its constitutional duty and sending a message that no president can get away with the abuses of power documented in Mueller's report. Yet it also might be true that an impeachment along party lines in the House followed by acquittal in the Senate would only provide ammunition for Trump's 2020 re-election campaign. The good news for Democrats though is that it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. In their haste to load up for the circular firing squad, the party might be looking past the ideal strategy.
Rather than beginning impeachment proceedings tomorrow, Democrats should take the next year to continue investigating and litigating to obtain the documents and testimony they need. They then should summon the House from its regularly scheduled summer recess in 2020 to launch official impeachment hearings that would culminate during the Republican National Convention from August 24-27, 2020. Instead of proceeding to a vote after both sides have presented their cases, as would be customary in normal times, Speaker Pelosi could make up some smirking Mitch McConnell nonsense about how Democrats need to think about this for a really, really long time. Then, in the most devastating move possible, she should recall her caucus either the Friday or Monday before the November election to officially vote to impeach the president. Members can fly in and out of D.C. for the roll call vote and be back in their districts by mid-day. Good night and good luck.
President Trump would lose his mind. A sitting president has never run for re-election after getting impeached, let alone been forced to contest the election prior to a Senate trial. It would create absolute bedlam for his campaign. Contrary to the n-of-1 Clinton era conventional wisdom, getting impeached does not actually boost your reputation.
But impeaching the president on election eve would be more than a PR maneuver. Such a strategy would have several important and related goals. First, well-timed impeachment hearings could comprehensively wreck the RNC itself, robbing the president of the days-long pageantry, unity-building and message-crafting of a nominating convention, as well as the standard post-convention polling bounce. It would also likely launch the deliriously thin-skinned President Trump, a man incapable of setting aside his losing feud with a widely admired dead man, on a nightmare bender of public recriminations, attacks and outrages. The GOP would need to deploy a full team of minders just to prevent the president from blowing apart the whole convention with an ill-considered tweet.
Second, the stench of last-minute impeachment vote would drift over Election Day like the cloud of radioactive matter that covered Europe in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. It would also remove the most common political objection to the process, which is that the Senate will never convict him, and that his acquittal will give him a huge boost heading into the election. As Scott Lemieux argued recently, the media narrative would be “Vindicated Trump Found Innocent, Dems in Disarray After Failure of Partisan Witch Hunt.” And this may be true. But impeaching him with only hours to go before the election means that there will be no shelter from the ensuing cloud of bad press. Not even the master rules-manipulator Mitch McConnell would be able to gather the Senate and conduct a trial acquitting the president in the hours that remained before the election, particularly because the trial managers would need time to present their case. It would be a three-point shot at the buzzer. Republicans would have no choice whatsoever except to cry partisanship. My God, just outmaneuvering McConnell for once would almost be worth it alone.
Third and perhaps most importantly, impeachment proceedings may give Democrats legal powers to obtain information, documents and testimony that might be denied to them, through protracted legal battles, between now and next summer. That means that President Trump's tax returns might finally splash onto the front pages of newspapers in the summer of 2020, as well as whatever criminality is in his business past. And don't underestimate the effect that impeachment hearings might have on public opinion. The House proceedings would be the trial of the century, and even those who have steered themselves into a Fox News informational cul de sac would be forced to confront the fact that the president of the United States, to name one small example, is in daily violation of the Constitution so that he and his witless huckster family can make money on an ugly hotel.
Finally, imagine this scenario: America is in a (please, please let it be mild) recession next fall. President Trump, polling at 37 or 38 percent, is impeached on Monday, November 2, 2020 and then defeated decisively the next day, perhaps by as much as a 10-point margin. Republicans lose the Senate and the House as well. At that point the political disaster of Trumpism might be so undeniably manifest that 19 Republicans could be persuaded to convict him in the lame duck session before the new Congress is ushered into office in January 2021, if only to restore the party's shattered dignity. Likely? No. But it's the only scenario I can possibly conjure wherein the Senate convicts the president.
This probably all sounds quite extreme. But Democrats must learn to play the kind of procedural hardball that has become the norm rather than the exception for national and state Republicans. President Trump has made it clear that he believes he can ask the attorney general to initiate investigations against his political opponents, and he almost certainly will do this to the Democrats' current frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Despite all the many outrages of the past three years, turning the Department of Justice into the personal revenge arm of the president is a stunning and democracy-threatening escalation of Beltway partisan bickering. It demands a response-in-kind.
Democrats will certainly be assailed by media tut-tutters who will wring their hands about the timing. Republicans will ask, in their best faux-aggrieved voices: Why do this now? The answer should be: because we said so. Because nothing in the language of the Constitution or the rules of the House of Representatives prevents it, and the new maxim of American politics is that if some piece of previously unimaginable hardball is not expressly forbidden it is fine and good and proper. And if Republicans don't like it, they should consider backing slowly away from the ticking time bomb of open corruption, emotional incontinence and cheap sadism in the White House to whom they have yoked themselves so pitifully.
There is only one thing that should prevent Democrats from pursuing this plan to fruition, and that's if impeachment is polling so terribly by the summer of 2020 that it looks like moving forward might cost them the election. But the data on impeachment is not nearly as bad for Democrats as some would have you think. Earlier this month, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found impeachment with 45-42 support, and an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that 49 percent of voters either wanted immediate impeachment proceedings or further investigations with an ultimate decision put on hold pending the findings.
The path that would satisfy both those thirsty for impeachment and those who are worried about the political blowback would be to initiate an impeachment investigation in the House Judiciary Committee, and then drag it out. It would signal to the base that Democrats are serious about bringing the president to justice while leaving wiggle room to extricate themselves from the process if they think it will be a political mess. It also seems like more fun than a 17-month intra-left debate about whether to impeach.
Do it, Democrats.