Is It Time for Dems to Punt on Impeachment?

Not the greatest witness of all time. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, and Ed Kilgore discuss the pros and cons of impeachment post–Mueller hearings.

Ben: Yesterday’s hearing wasn’t the blockbuster Democrats wanted it to be, but regardless of Robert Mueller’s halting performance and the debate around whether the “optics” of the whole thing should hold equal importance with what he actually said, this feels like a moment when Democrats will either mostly move on from the Russia investigation or plow ahead. Setting aside the question of impeachment for a minute, would they be smart to keep emphasizing the facts Mueller confirmed yesterday — which is to say Trump’s probable obstruction of justice, the fact that he could be indicted when he leaves office, and more?

Jon: There’s no harm in holding hearings to investigate.

Ed: It is also important to keep challenging Trump’s claims that he has been “exonerated” and to combat the parallel universe of GOP conspiracy theories about the “witch hunt.”

Jon: I think, right or wrong, they needed Mueller to charge Trump for conspiracy if they wanted to impeach on it.

Ed: Yeah, something more galvanizing than obstruction would be needed to make an impeachment drive viable.

Jon: The obstruction is really bad behavior but difficult to impeach over its absence of being charged with an underlying crime.

Ed: Agree.

Jon: Too hard to argue “there’s no crime because he covered it up.”

Ed: The argument, like the presumption of innocence in a criminal case, is correct but not something regular folks embrace.

Ben: So it sounds like your stance on impeachment hasn’t changed at all, which is a reflection of everyone else’s stances also not changing.

Ed: True for me. As I wrote last week, impeachment of Trump for chronic racism and deliberate divisiveness — and hell, maybe for his incredible habit of lying — makes more sense than making obstruction of the Mueller investigation the basis for proceedings.

Ben: The left really wants impeachment, and they’re not exactly representing a fringe view here. Ninety House Democrats have endorsed it, and polls put overall Democratic support at more than two-thirds. There’s quite a bit of anger at Nancy Pelosi for trying to tread this “we need to see what our investigations uncover” middle ground, when she clearly wants no part of impeachment. Some say this passive approach, beyond its moral implications, will depress voter enthusiasm and even turnout. Do you see any validity to that argument?

Jon: No, turnout will be keyed to the presidential election, not the House.

Ed: Not the argument about turnout. Anyone who refuses to vote to remove Trump from office because Democrats refused to launch a suicide effort to remove him from office really needs therapy.

Ben: Well, a lot of people need therapy.

Jon: I do think impeachment could affect Trump’s image, though. That’s the best argument for it — it might scuff up his already-scuffed image by increasing the salience of his scandals. The flip side is that it’s still unpopular, might remain so, and the 40 swing Democrats might need or want to vote against it.

Ben: Another argument is that it’ll give Democrats the power to uncover documents and damning financial records and whatnot that they currently don’t have.

Jon: If that happens, a “bipartisan” vote against impeachment could help Trump.

Ed: The fishing-trip argument for impeachment assumes there’s something out there so damning that it could flip Republicans or really seize public opinion. We obviously don’t know if that’s true or not.

Ben: Yes, I would argue “not bloody likely.”

Jon: Also it’s very speculative that impeachment is needed to get documents. It might be needed in a court fight, but my guess is it won’t make a difference.

Ed: What troubles me about this approach is that it strikes me as another evasion of the most direct path to removing Trump from office, which is beating him in a campaign that’s already right on the horizon.

Ben: But what’s the difference between trying to find that stuff — which Democrats should try to do anyway — and impeaching? Is it just the word impeachment that you think would turn people off?

Jon: Well, if you have a vote to impeach, that’s a big deal.

Ed: Going in that direction creates three possible outcomes that Democrats should not want: (1) you begin impeachment proceedings but then never bring articles of impeachment to fruition, which could look like an “exoneration” of Trump while making Democrats look feckless and weak; (2) a lost vote for impeachment in the House, which as Jon noted, would really be bad; or (3) an impeachment followed by a certain Senate acquittal, which would take up vast amounts of time and energy with no real payoff.

This whole “start impeachment proceedings to get evidence” followed by … nothing … strikes me as an idea that has received too little ridicule.

Jon: “Can’t know what we’re impeaching him for until we do it” is a bad message.

Ed: Right. And I think the common-sense reaction in the small but pivotal ranks of swing voters would be “Aren’t we about to have another election, like, tomorrow afternoon? Why are you doing this now?”

Ben: For the sake of representation, it’s unfortunate that we’re all pretty much on the same side on this. Jon, you need to suddenly advocate impeachment now.

Jon: Revolution now! Impeachment is for wimps.

Ed: Again, if we’re talking about impeaching Trump for being a pathological liar and a racist, I could switch sides quickly.

Ben: Why would that make any more political sense than the other rationale?

Jon: Seems really hard to impeach somebody for traits that were known when he was elected.

Ed: He had only lied about 2,000 times before becoming president. The record has been amplified quite a bit since then.

I’m not really in favor of impeachment anyway, but I think there would be more public support for the proposition that he has disgraced the presidency via mendacity and hatefulness than via trying to get Mueller fired.

Jon: I just don’t agree with that.

Ben: Finally a disagreement!

Jon: I think impeachment has to be for conduct in office or newly discovered conduct pre-presidency, perhaps.

Ed: But look, I don’t think it’s happening.

Ben: Could Democrats pacify restive impeachment enthusiasts by becoming more aggressive on other investigative fronts?

Ed: I fear impeachment fever has become an end in itself, but sure, it couldn’t hurt.

Ben: Okay, so in the likely scenario, where many are pissed that impeachment isn’t happening and it continues not to happen, do you foresee any actual negative political consequences for Democrats beyond griping on Twitter? (For those who think it’s a moral imperative, obviously there would be negative consequences.)

Jon: As far as political consequences? There’s the missed opportunity to (potentially) hurt Trump’s approval — that’s it, as far as I can tell. The Democratic base will be ready to go regardless in 2020.

Ben: But will they be fired up and ready to go?

Jon: I’m ready to go. Not sure how many more hints I can drop here.

Ben: Okay, Jon, we’re wrapping up soon.

Ed: I guess anger about a failure to impeach could become an issue in some Democratic 2020 primaries and perhaps part of a general indictment of the Democratic Establishment even in the presidential contest. But I agree, it’s hard to imagine actual voters being so upset about the failure to pursue an absolutely 100 percent–certain doomed effort to remove Trump that they pass up the actual opportunity to remove Trump in an election.

Is It Time for Dems to Punt on Impeachment?