A Realist’s Guide to Impeachment

Trump should face the consequences of his misdeeds, but the road ahead is perilous.

Donald Trump
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

An impeachment of President Donald Trump is both deserved and dangerous. That it’s deserved is clear from each day’s news reports. The danger is getting lost in the rush of events.

It’s unlikely that impeachment will find 67 votes in the Senate for removal. The process will almost certainly end with Trump acquitted, and acquitted in a reelection year. The political consequences of acquittal are obviously unpredictable but could be favorable to Trump’s reelection: Trump supporters may be mobilized, Trump opponents demoralized, and Democratic presidential candidates distracted from issues that may be more potent at the voting booth.

Meanwhile, impeachment is likely to do Trump less and less political harm the longer it lasts. As the Trump presidency daily proves, people can get used to anything. This latest Trump scandal led to an impeachment inquiry because it happened so fast—the shock was still fresh. But the Comey firing, the racist tirades, the “if it’s what you say I love it” email—those were all once shocking too. Then they blurred into the avalanche of Trump awfulness. Trump is protected by the sheer number of his high crimes and misdemeanors. He will certainly commit more, and then these latest risk being buried.

Some impeachment advocates compare today’s process to that of 1973–74, when Richard Nixon’s position gradually crumbled. Maybe, but 1973 and ’74 were years of severe economic distress, a losing war in Vietnam, rising crime in U.S. cities, and long lines at gas stations. Nixon headed a party in the minority in both the House and the Senate, and a party less cohesive than the Republican Party of today. Once it split over Watergate, he fell. Trump’s party may lose a defector or two, but it won’t split.

So … eyes open. “You come at the king, you best not miss.” How do you incorporate that wisdom into today’s predicament?

Here are some guidelines to impeachment for realists:

1. Keep the story simple. Some have proposed a massive array of inquiries, delving into every facet of Trump’s corruption and abuse of power. This approach ensures a process that goes slow, yields confusing masses of facts, and opens endless opportunities for bad faith excuse-making by Trump and his enablers. Congress is not very good at investigating, and the more investigations Congress pursues, the more it is likely to mire itself in a morass.

Impeachment in the House is above all things an educational exercise for the voting public. Teach them one lesson: Trump betrayed the national-security interests of the United States to smear a political opponent.

2. Be political, not legal. Robert Mueller built a failure machine because he defined his job as punishing crimes rather than discovering the truth. If he found something that was very bad, but not criminal, he ignored it. If he could not establish a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, the criminal got away with it. If the crime was committed by the president, he in effect protected it. Mueller’s logic was amazingly self-defeating: Because the president cannot be indicted, he will never be heard in court; because the president will never be heard in court, it is unfair even to present evidence of crimes that will never be litigated. Impeachment busts out of this ridiculous trap.

3. Recognize that the opponent is McConnell. Trump is the target of impeachment, but the strategic locus of the impeachment process is Trump’s enabler and defender in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It is McConnell who will set the rules of the trial, McConnell who will determine how long it lasts and which witnesses are heard. McConnell presumably knows better than anybody how guilty Trump is—and for that very reason will work harder than anyone to protect Trump. The first task in a successful process is to shrink McConnell’s options for abusive behavior. That means prying just enough Republican senators loose from McConnell’s grip to create a bloc for fair rules.

4. Break the weakest links. Last night, The Washington Post reported that Trump told visiting Russians in June 2017 that he was unconcerned by their interference in the 2016 election. The Post cited three sources—meaning three officials held this appalling story secret for more than two years. Why did they step forward now? Maybe they think they are about to be fired if the Trump administration starts hunting for internal moles; maybe they didn’t believe, until the Ukraine whistle-blower came forward, that leaking would make any difference; maybe they just wanted to get on the right side before it’s too late.

Regardless, the pressures of impeachment create new incentives for administration officials exposed to job or legal risk. Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats resigned without saying anything about what he saw on the job. Before Congress, he may be less reticent. The president’s private emissary, Rudy Giuliani, may be legally exposed as well. He may have things to say. Vice President Mike Pence, who played a role in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, has important calculations to make about his political future. Trump implicated so many people that not all will stay loyal to the end. Some will crack and speak the truth about the criminality they saw. Identify them.

5. Keep the Democratic presidential candidates far away. Bill Clinton survived his impeachment crisis in 1998–99 in great part because he made the Republicans look sex-obsessed while he focused on his job. President Trump has never focused on anything longer than the time it takes to gulp down a Filet-O-Fish. He will be scandal-obsessed—and he will try to drag his prospective 2020 opponents into the mud with him. Their job is to leave the investigation to Congress—and to talk about health care, jobs, college tuition, the cost of Trump tariffs, and other issues of immediate concern to the pocketbook voters who will or won’t eject Trump from the presidency. Those voters will care whether their president is a disloyal criminal, but they may not care about every detail of his disloyalty and criminality. Leave those details to Congress; the candidates have other duties.

Trump’s support has moved within a band from the high 30s to the mid-40s through his presidency, edging sometimes toward the 46 percent he won in 2016. He has nowhere to grow. The 50-plus percent who reject him do so decisively and permanently. But a president backed by even one-third of the nation wields great power. If he can hold a blocking faction in the Senate, he becomes more powerful still. When that one-third backs him despite—or even sometimes because—they know him to be lawless, legality dwindles into an only semi-effective tool against him.

Nobody should have any illusions: Bringing anything like justice to President Trump will be neither easy nor safe. The exposure of Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme forced impeachment on the country. It could not be ignored, and devices like censure are inadequate. But the days ahead are dark.