Should Democrats Reserve Impeachment for the Catastrophe of a Second Trump Term?

Will a triumphant Trump go wild in a possible second term? Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

For as long as it’s been under discussion, I’ve been firmly a skeptic of the advisability of impeachment proceedings against Trump by House Democrats. Like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, I thought the zero-percent probability of a Senate vote for conviction, no matter what the facts showed, meant impeachment would be a distracting spectacle that would interfere with the House’s (and the Democratic Party’s) hard work of conducting less fraught investigations and preparing for the 2020 campaign.

Yes, the redacted Mueller report convinced me that Trump has richly earned impeachment. And I’ve been open to the argument that without at least the initiation of impeachment proceedings, Trump’s stonewalling of Congress might make less fraught investigations impossible. But still, the lack of majority public support for this step seems crucial. It seems likely that impeachment could take over the 2020 election cycle, narrowing rather than expanding the Democratic indictment of Trump’s presidency. The obsessive media attention devoted to impeachment before, during, and after the formal proceedings might well step on the Democratic messages that worked in the midterms, overshadow the campaign of Trump’s Democratic opponent, and rev up the MAGA machine into a high-pitched chattering whine of turnout-generating hate-frenzy.

And beneath it all, I suspect that impeachment fever is less about pursuing a logical approach to holding Trump accountable or performing Congress’s constitutional duty than about relieving many years of progressive frustration, dating back at least to the Florida fiasco of 2000, over the inability of Democrats to behave as ruthlessly as their GOP rivals. After endlessly imploring Democratic elected officials to show “spine,” could they accept that it is wiser to let Trump briefly have his way and then show him the door in November of 2020?

So when David Frum penned his own case against impeachment, I followed along, silently nodding as he made many of these same points, expressing some better than I could:

[A]n acquitted Trump will be an immunized Trump. Is it vexing to hear Trump’s team misrepresent Robert Mueller’s report as an “exoneration”? Imagine what they will say and do if they defeat impeachment on a party-line Senate vote. It was all fake news, a plot by the Deep State. As false and wrong as those claims will be, how will Democrats sustain the momentum to hold Trump to account after a trial and acquittal? Won’t they then have to submit to the jeers of Trump henchpersons: This issue was litigated, and it’s time to move on?

Impeachment now threatens to turn the 2020 election into a referendum on the Democrats’ methods in Congress, not Trump’s wrongdoing in the presidency, in the campaign, and in private life.

But at the very end Frum offered an argument I had not thought of, and it made my blood run cold:

They [should] reserve the impeachment remedy for the very genuine possibility of a Trump second term, by which time the Senate will likely have shifted more in the Democrats’ direction.

While fearing impeachment might help Trump win a second term, it hadn’t occurred to me that in this circumstance he might truly run wild with unconstitutional actions and flouting of norms and nose-thumbing at Congress at a level not yet envisioned. Yes, technically, the House is not limited to one impeachment per president, but it’s hard to imagine Democrats being able to go to that well twice. Even Andrew Johnson, who rebelled against the party that put him in the White House, regularly defied Congress, and tried with all his might to spoil the just fruits of the bloodiest war in American history, didn’t suffer multiple impeachments.

Yes, there are those who remain convinced that heading down the road to impeachment is the best way to ensure Trump loses in 2020. They’d better be really sure. As fictional gunman Omar Little once said on the TV crime drama The Wire: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

Should Dems Save Impeachment for Possible Second Trump Term?