Ben: President Trump’s repeated suggestion to Ukraine’s president that he investigate Joe Biden, and whether he dangled money in exchange for such an investigation, is such egregious and obvious misconduct that some Democrats who had been on the fence about impeachment seem to be coming around; even Nancy Pelosi is gesturing that she might get there eventually. We here at Intelligencer HQ have not exactly been gung ho on impeachment — Jon and I have been opposed, and Eric has been in the middle — compared with the majority of Democrats who are all-in, according to polls. Does this change your thinking?
Jon: I am unsure but starting to move closer to pro-impeachment, though my position is in part an axiomatic response to what Congress thinks — the more Congress supports impeachment, the better an idea it is in my view.
The worst outcome would be an impeachment resolution that fails. Next worst, a resolution that gets 218 votes. At minimum, you need close to all the Democrats, plus Justin Amash, the one Republican who has supported impeachment. When you get close to unanimity among Democrats, that’s when the idea hits a threshold of being a good idea. (That’s my view, not saying that’s the only view — others disagree).
Eric: I’ve been agnostic on impeachment, on the grounds that whether or not it’s a good idea depends almost entirely on whether it helps or hurts Trump’s reelection prospects. And there is some reason to believe it would perversely help Trump on the margins — polls suggest impeachment is unpopular, particularly with the very strange subset of the population that still isn’t sure which team it’s on; Republicans did extremely poorly in that one midterm after impeaching Clinton. On the other hand, forcing Susan Collins to cast a vote directly abetting Trump’s lawlessness could help Dems secure a critical Senate seat. And there are some plausible arguments out there that impeachment would create a media environment that would ultimately undermine Trump. In my view, it seems impossible for anyone to know exactly how all this would play out.
As Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors grow more numerous and audacious, the moralistic case for erring on the side of “doing your constitutional duty” does get harder for me to dismiss, though.
Jon: I am still annoyed by the moralistic case. To me, it’s 100 percent practical: If you think the result will help Trump hold power, do not do it, full stop. Now, that is a debatable thing, as you say. But the fact that people keep asserting moralistically that we must do it makes me very distrustful of the whole crusade. They’re broadcasting that they don’t care what the outcome is or that they don’t see how morality could override the practical impact. In what world is “We helped Trump win, but we did the right thing” a sensible argument that people would make after the 2020 election?
Eric: Yeah, I guess it’s not the moralism I find compelling so much as … the possibility that the moralists may actually be right that pursuing impeachment would have an inhibiting effect on Trump’s transgressions — if only because it would commandeer his attention, leaving less free time for crimes.
Jon: I agree, that is very possible.
Ben: Both of your points get to the heart of why I’m struggling with this question. Before this latest revelation, I was anti-impeachment because (1) the majority of voters were not in favor of doing it, and it would likely alienate some of them, at least to an extent; (2) Trump will certainly be acquitted and have his triumphant moment; and (3) it is unlikely to make him any more unpopular, in my opinion, despite what pro-impeachment voices think. Those three objections still hold water, I think, but to just sit there while he openly undermines an upcoming election may be a bridge too far for me. I do think voters will understand going to war over this more than they do relitigating obstruction in a Russia investigation they never cared much about. So the practical case is slightly better than it was, and the moral case (sorry, Jon) is getting to be overwhelming. And there’s the fact that I was never fully confident that impeachment would actually hurt a Democrat’s reelection chances — nobody really knows.
Jon: Morals! [Spits on ground] I think the main hurt is the 40 Democratic seat-flippers. The presidential nominee would be fine, I think, but House members could get hurt for voting to impeach, which is why I think the right move is to listen to them (which Pelosi is obviously doing).
Eric: As the ranks of secretly anti-Trump retiring House Republicans multiply, I do wonder if a couple of them can be won over to Team Amash. It would help the Democrats message this.
Ben: Another practical argument is that this would focus attention on Trump’s efforts to undermine the election, which are likely to grow more and more intense. I think there’s a definite upside to that.
Jon: That would matter. I don’t see how impeachment prevents Trump from undermining the election, though.
Eric: Matt Yglesias mentioned this over the weekend, I think, but opposition parties in states ruled by corrupt/proto-authoritarian regimes often mobilize mass protests and civil disobedience to check the incumbents’ power. Not sure whether that would in fact be a means of imposing a cost on Trump’s lawlessness without jeopardizing incumbent Dems (not hard to imagine a case for why it’d do neither of those things). But I think it is worth considering mechanisms for resistance beyond those suggested by our shitty Constitution
Ben: Eric “Smash the State” Levitz.
Eric: Or at least the Trump-owned properties.
Jon: Impeachment is too radical; revolution is the answer. Seriously, though, protesting the Trump properties seems like a no-brainer. Why don’t people do that? Is there no space? (There is in D.C.!) I visited the Trump hotel there with my family last winter. I couldn’t understand why there aren’t crowds out there 24/7 screaming that the people inside are criminals.
Ben: At least give it a bad Yelp review.
Eric: Yeah, I feel like “Make it harder for Trump to profit off the presidency by protesting constantly outside his clearly marked profit centers” seems like a sound strategy.
Soros and Steyer can pay the protesters.
Jon: My friend once mistakenly walked into a place in Brooklyn and was looking at a group of obvious mobsters. One of them said, “You’re in the wrong place.” And he scooted. I felt like the Trump Hotel should be like that. It’s this notorious center of criminal activity. But you can just walk right in there. It’s weird.
Ben: All right, back to impeachment. To what extent do you think elevating this story might backfire for Democrats, or at least for Joe Biden? While there’s no hint of actual illegality in the Bidens’ involvement with Ukraine, it’s true that Joe’s son was being paid $50,000 a month by a sketchy oligarch for services that are unclear. It gives off the appearance of garden-variety influence peddling, which is not generally popular among voters.
Jon: It’s definitely true that every time Trump or his surrogates are asked about it, they respond with a soundbite attacking Biden, and the media carry those soundbites. So certainly it hurts Biden more than any other Democrat.
Eric: Yeah. And given that Warren has staked out a leadership position on impeachment while Biden has not, such a push could hurt him in more ways than one.
Ben: What about the substantive charges there, that Biden’s family shouldn’t have been involved with this stuff in the first place? Did he mess up in that regard?
Jon: Reportedly, Hunter took that job without ever consulting his father and/or Hunter is definitely a screwup, the Don Jr. of the Biden family, a ne’er-do-well who just trades on his dad’s name. The good news is that by all appearances, he is fooling clients into believing he has pull, of which there’s no evidence.
Ben: Do you think it’s inevitable that impeachment is going to happen at this point?
Jon: No, not at all. The clock is ticking, and once the campaign is underway I think it gets harder.
Ben: Of course we also don’t have the full details of what really happened on this phone call, etc.
Jon: Thursday’s hearing will be important.
Eric: Yeah, at this point, it’s not clear that the news cycle won’t digest this Ukraine thing in a week’s time. When and if the news moves on, I imagine the impeachment talk will lose momentum. Remember when the fact that Saudi Arabia openly killed a Washington Post columnist was supposed to somehow change our relationship with its government?
Jon: The whistle-blower report is a hook. That keeps the story going. My guess is they release a transcript, possibly edited, and not the full report to see if it goes away.
Ben: I want to get you both on the record, right now, on Monday, September 23. Where exactly do you stand on impeachment?
Jon: Still opposed but now impeachment-curious.