As Washington braces for the Mueller report, Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, Margaret Hartmann, and Ed Kilgore discuss whether the new Democratic House Majority should use its powers to merely investigate President Trump — or to impeach him.
Ben: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made waves the other day when she said that impeaching President Trump was “not worth it” absent “compelling” and “overwhelming” evidence, and hinted that if impeachment did happen, it would have to be on a bipartisan basis. (Good luck with that.) Other Democrats, perhaps most vocally Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, argue that political ramifications aside, it would be an abdication of Democratic responsibility not to initiate impeachment proceedings.
Let’s say the Mueller report doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t really know about Trump’s criminality. Should Democrats impeach with just the information they have now?
Ed: I’m already on record agreeing with Pelosi.
Margaret: I agree with Ed’s agreement with Pelosi, though I think there are certainly grounds for impeachment. The problem may be too many crimes, as Jon has noted.
Jon: I can argue both sides, but the devil’s advocate side is that holding an impeachment trial elevates the charges and raises their political salience, therefore hurting Trump’s reelection odds. Substantively, there’s little doubt his behavior has risen to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Ed: Yeah, that’s plausible, as is the counterargument that going down that road will rouse expectations among Democrats that are sure to disappoint.
Margaret: I was more pro-impeachment early in the Trump administration.
Jon: You think he’s grown into the job?
Margaret: Haha, no. I think we’ve grown accustomed to the president obstructing justice at every opportunity. I got up to 19 times by December 2017! Then, even I stopped counting.
Ed: Early in the Trump administration there was some doubt about the extent to which Republicans would defend his misconduct. They’ve now removed all doubt.
Jon: The 19th time is when he finally became President of the United States.
Margaret: If, in five months, Republicans had said, “Hey, you can’t just fire the FBI director and then tell the Russians in the Oval Office that you did it due to the investigation,” then sure, impeach.
Ed: I think the odds of Republicans flipping on Trump in numbers sufficient to make impeachment (a) feasible, or (b) perceivable as anything other than partisanship by Republicans are roughly zero for obstruction of justice, and maybe 10 percent for evidence of actual collusion.
Margaret: In Jerrold Nadler’s interview with The Daily this week, he kept emphasizing that impeachment is a political act. Half the politicians in America decided that they’re fine with Trump’s behavior up to this point, so I don’t see the point in starting impeachment proceedings.
I agree with Pelosi that it’s just going to divide the country further.
Jon: But what about the case that it will give his misconduct a bigger platform, and make it easier to run against him on that basis?
Ben: Right. At Crooked Media, Brian Beutler opined that there’s little evidence impeachment would be damaging to Democrats, and that opposition to it is short-sighted. He writes that “Democratic leaders have all but doomed themselves to the worst-possible approach: One in which they unearth damning evidence and then make the conscious decision not to act on it; one in which they tacitly bless all of Trump’s wrongdoing and pray both that voters do all the hard work for them, and that nothing tragic happens as a consequence of their inaction.” His take on the political dynamic is that it would not deepen divisions any further.
Ed: Just look at what happened to Republicans in 1998. Have we forgotten they managed to blow a midterm — an almost completely unprecedented event for the “out” party — because of their determination to impeach Clinton?
Jon: The midterms are over, though. Look what happened in 2000 — Bush ran against the mess in Washington.
Ed: I don’t think Bush’s victory was attributable to a failed impeachment effort, at all.
Jon: I think it helped create the sense that Clinton was scummy and we needed a change.
Ed: Is anyone thinking through the implications of raising “base” expectations to a high-pitched, chattering whine by initiating impeachment proceedings and then letting them down? I don’t think most voters in either party understand that removing Trump from office almost certainly will not happen.
Ben: I do think that’s a real downside. But what would be the consequence of that? They vote Republican because Dems screwed it up?
Ed: There’s also a timing issue. Do Democrats want to impeach Trump when the 2020 race has already begun?
Margaret: Yeah, I don’t even know if removing him from office would be beneficial at this point. I think a good chunk of the country would freak out and feel that he was unfairly ousted, even if they got a few GOP senators onboard.
Jon: That’s a whole other can of worms, but I don’t think there are going to be 67 votes to remove for any reason.
Margaret: Everyone knows you can’t impeach once the presidential race is underway, or at least that’s what I heard from Mitch McConnell.
Ed: So again, what can impeachment proceedings do that other kinds of hearings and investigations not do, given the risks involved? Democrats have been calling Trump a lying racist criminal from the get-go. I don’t see that pursuing impeachment will suddenly convince voters: “Hey, there may be a problem with our president!”
Ben: Another argument is that not impeaching renders impeachment meaningless. It’s there in the rules for a reason, and now we’re just going to ignore it when it’s actually very applicable.
Ed: Well, I forget who said this, but obstruction of justice is to white-collar crime what loitering is to street crime.
Jon: Do all voters really know Trump is a straight-up criminal? I’m skeptical.
Margaret: I mean, is he a straight-up criminal at this point?
Ed: I don’t think the persuadable segment of the public is going to march in the streets to remove Trump over an obstruction charge.
Jon: Oh, I don’t think you need people to get into the streets, you just need them to be aware that he is a crook. Embezzlement: It’s not legal!
Ed: Jon, this whole discussion, I thought, was based on the premise that an impeachment, if it occurred, will be about obstruction of justice, not collusion or embezzlement or consorting with prostitutes or any number of things the man may have done.
Jon: Oh, I would be anticipating like 50 counts.
Ed: I actually think hearings that aren’t aimed at impeachment would make it easier to expose crimes the public would care about.
Jon: Perjury, obstruction, embezzlement, tax fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy …
Ed: You really think (a) Mueller, or (b) House Democrats are going there, and have the goods? If so, it might fall into the loophole Pelosi herself pronounced.
Margaret: I think I might be partly against impeachment right now because I do think something crazy is going to come out.
Jon: Don’t forget SDNY, and the NY AG. Let’s back up. There are 17 investigations right now; they concern a wide array of criminal behavior.
Ed: Great. That doesn’t mean they’d get folded into an impeachment inquiry if one was to begin today.
Jon: I didn’t say today.
Margaret: I’m against impeachment at the moment, but I think all of this stuff should be thoroughly investigated, if only for the historical record. Hopefully it won’t be destroyed by Leader Pence.
My perspective on Trump changed a lot amid one of the many news cycles about the “N-word” tape. Among journalists I talked to, the feeling was “I don’t need a tape to tell me where Trump stands on race.” But then I discussed it with acquaintances who weren’t following day-to-day developments closely, and they just wanted to know if the tape was out yet. They needed tangible proof of something nefarious. (Like a private email server, for instance.)
I think Democrats might be betting that there IS a smoking gun. That might be wrong, but if something very shocking comes out, Pelosi’s move was smart.