In the first few days after House Democrats announced impeachment proceedings against President Trump, a series of anti-Trump conservatives published columns arguing that they were making a giant tactical error. Bret Stephens (“Pelosi’s Bad Impeachment Call”), David Brooks (“Yes, Trump Is Guilty, But Impeachment Is a Mistake”), and George Will (“The best antidote for a bad election is a better election”) all produced the same argument. Trump has done awful things, but impeachment will repel the public. Only an election can remove him.
The flaws in that argument have already become apparent. Impeachment is growing steadily more popular. A Washington Post poll finds a slim majority of Americans favor both Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. A commanding majority, 58 versus 38 percent, support the House’s impeachment inquiry. The fear that Trump somehow desired impeachment has been belied by essentially all the White House reporting, which shows the president alternating between depression and raging and flailing for a strategy.
The fear that impeachment would backfire was not crazy, but almost every piece of evidence so far has vindicated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy. There are several reasons why the politics of impeachment have turned in the Democrats’ favor:
This isn’t Russia. The anticlimactic denouement of the Russia investigation weighed heavily on the impeachment skeptics. But the political impact of the Russia probe was smothered both by its dependence on Robert Mueller, who was held back by an almost monk-like desire to escape politics by giving Trump every benefit of the doubt, and the sheer complexity of the affair. If the only important facts in the Russia story were Donald Trump negotiating for a several-hundred-million-dollar payoff from Vladimir Putin during the campaign and then lying about it, the outcry might have toppled him. But because that was just one of countless shady details, the incriminating facts were buried beneath one another.
The Ukraine scandal is much simpler. There is a lot of evidence of wrongdoing, but it all revolves around a single narrative of Trump pressuring a foreign country to investigate his domestic rivals. And the narrative is controlled by Congress, which is willing to charge the president with a high crime, not a reclusive prosecutor who has decided it is improper for him to make any such accusation.
Even Republicans have trouble defending it. For all the public affirmations of support from Trump’s fervent base in the party and party-controlled media, even his supporters are harboring some qualms.
Anita Kumar has a revealing story quoting hard-core Trumpists — ones who stood behind him throughout the Russia scandal — expressing their belief that this time he went too far. “Russia was never real,” an outside Trump adviser says, “Ukraine is.” “Russia was a complete and utter fantasy. Ukraine isn’t. His actions were unseemly … not a ghost like Russia,” says another Republican. “Should he have mentioned Biden? No. I wish he wouldn’t have. … But I don’t fault him as much as other people,” says a third.
The story can get worse. One thing that ought to have been apparent at the outset of this scandal, but which many people missed, is that a lot of people were involved. Turning American foreign policy into an episode of The Sopranos isn’t easy. You have a whole bureaucracy that’s used to operating along established channels, and distorting its functions in such a gross fashion sends ripples throughout the system.
There are going to be more witnesses and more records of communication. Trump is going to keep lying and saying crazy things. It’s not going to be easy to deprive the story of oxygen.
The politics can get worse, too. Republican support for Trump may be louder than the criticism. But the silence of many Republicans, not just the handful of quasi-independent voices, speaks volumes. Many Republicans are withholding judgment, perhaps criticizing impeachment as hasty, but not defending Trump’s behavior or ruling out removal if more evidence emerges.
Gabe Sherman reports that Mitt Romney is planning to rally Republicans for impeachment in the Senate. Romney has a lot of respect in his caucus, and a lot of fame among the public. Can he get enough senators to remove Trump? Probably not. (Though “probably” is a lot different than “absolutely.”) But some measure of bipartisan support for impeachment is going to strengthen the message that Trump has done something seriously wrong. The lack of Democratic qualms about impeachment solidifies the message. When Democrats all say Trump has done something wrong, and Republicans are divided, people will get the message that he’s probably in the wrong.
This will hurt Trump’s reelection. The biggest mistake the impeachment skeptics made is their assumption that impeaching Trump are unrelated to, or at cross-purposes with, defeating him in 2020. “An election can save the country. An inside-the-Beltway political brawl will not,” predicted Brooks.
Most voters are locked in to one of the parties. The swing vote tends to be low-information voters with a hazy grasp of the issues. Impeachment is a signal to those voters that Trump has done something seriously wrong. It’s not a magic trick that works against every president — there needs to be misconduct people can easily understand, and which the news media covers as a serious scandal. This easily qualifies.
If Trump has any political strengths, it is that he is a low-information voter himself, and grasps how the political narrative plays out in snippets of cable-news chyrons drifting across screens in bars and airports. Trump has confided to allies that impeachment “looks bad on his résumé.”
Because his victory surprised so many people, Trump has a way of psyching out his opponents sometimes. There’s no real political magic here. Having the news dominated by a scandal even many Republicans can’t defend, with a constant drip of damning new details, is extremely unhelpful for the president.