Democrats are in danger of losing the impeachment spin battle
The House impeachment resolution shows Democrats are still too worried about their Republican colleagues
On Thursday, House Democrats gave their Republican colleagues exactly what they've been requesting for the past month, passing a resolution that outlines the procedure going forward for the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. On one hand, the move represents a substantive step forward in the case against the president, the formalization on a broad scale — the measure passed by 36 votes — of what has, up until this point, often felt more theoretical than real.
Another way to look at the House bill, however, is as yet another victory for Republicans in their ongoing efforts to delay, discredit, and distract from the charges against Trump. The Republican demands that Democrats set down their process for the impeachment inquiry and officially ratify it — something that Congress is not required to do — created just another hurdle Democrats felt they had to clear. In a letter explaining the resolution to her Democratic colleagues earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the White House's argument that the impeachment inquiry was unauthorized until the House voted on it had "no merit." But that didn't keep Pelosi from rounding up Democrats to vote on exactly that on Thursday.
Many will argue this is all part of Pelosi's shrewd strategy, her deft understanding of how to build an overwhelming prosecution against Trump in a way Republicans will find difficult to argue with. But this have-it-both-ways approach by Democrats has up to this point been easy for Republicans to exploit, not least because there's no impeachment process they'll ever deem legitimate.
That much was evident in these latest events. As Jim Newell at Slate pointed out, as soon as House Democrats released the text of the resolution that Republicans demanded, those same Republicans "moved to their next phase of attacking the process." The new GOP talking points now describe the impeachment investigation as "broken" and "tainted" — no matter that Democrats have been following standards established by House Republicans in 2015, or that the new resolution gives Trump more of a say than Clinton or Nixon ever got.
While I've already argued it was right for Pelosi and the Democratic caucus to not rush to impeachment, it's still worth considering how this prolonged process has played to Republicans' advantage. Even as Pelosi ploddingly slow-walked to the impeachment inquiry, Republicans effectively railed that Democrats were pursuing a breakneck "rush to judgment," as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it back in September. And now that we are finally here, Pelosi's new indication that she wants the impeachment process to wrap up quickly seems likely to only substantiate Republican talking points.
It's a maddening strategy considering how much evidence there is against the president. Pelosi recently told The Atlantic that the case against Trump would be "ironclad" once it went forward. But her acknowledgment in that same interview that "we've had enough [evidence] for a very long time," raises questions about why it took so long to get here.
Pelosi is right. The case for impeaching Trump is robust. Long before we knew he had pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden's son in exchange for receiving congressionally appropriated military aid — something Trump has admitted to doing — he was racking up a long list of impeachable offenses.
But amassing insurmountable evidence against the president still won't convince hardly any Republicans, whether politicians or voters. Earlier this week, National Security Council official Alexander Vindman provided damning testimony against Trump's illegal actions with Ukraine, the sort of clear evidence that alone would bring down any other president. Instead, the conservative Washington Examiner laughed off Vindman as "the 1 millionth witness" to come forward, demonstrating how easily conservative media can spin the embarrassment of riches of evidence Democrats have against the president into just an embarrassment for Democrats. Tellingly, the Washington Examiner concluded Vindman had done "nothing more than corroborate the things we already knew." In a normal world, corroboration should lead to conviction. But in our Trump-twisted reality, it's just written off as ho-hum old news. Nothing new to see here, folks. Thus, the long line of witnesses and the mountains of evidence — the very stuff Pelosi thought she needed to assemble in order to go forward — instead becomes proof of a crazed and politically-motivated "witch hunt" against the president.
All of this demonstrates that there's no winning trying to play by the rules with a party that has shown, in their embrace and defense of Trump, how little they care about following the rules themselves. That doesn't mean Democrats should play dirty either. Someone has to adhere to the rule of law for this democratic experiment we know as the United States to continue. But it might mean Pelosi and the Democrats think less about how Republicans will respond to impeachment proceedings and more about how to best control and drive the narrative for the American public.
Conservative pundits are busy now suggesting that there's no public consensus when it comes to impeachment, characterizing the move for impeachment as a harebrained obsession by a small, radical fringe. That message works well in the echo chambers of conservative media, like Fox News. But it's not accurate. A majority of Americans support removing Trump from office. Pelosi and Democrats must keep that American majority — not the Republican minority in the House — in mind as they proceed.
They might also take note of a sharp signal from baseball fans earlier this week. On Sunday night, the crowd at game five of the World Series greeted President Trump's presence with deafening chants of "lock him up." Commentary on the night quickly divided into predictable interpretations of the chants representing either an unfortunate show of disrespect for the presidency or a liberal crowd's understandable disgust towards Trump. But it might be seen as something else also: citizens resoundingly imploring Democrats to do their job.
Democrats won't hit a home run against this president. Senate Republicans will make sure of that. But it's vital that they not strike out while the bases are loaded.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.