Why the Strongest Argument Against Impeachment Fails

A remorseless president may keep pressuring foreigners to help him win in 2020.

Trump sits with his hands clasped together.
Tom Brenner / Reuters

Last week, National Review’s Jim Geraghty offered an argument against removing Donald Trump that even those of us who believe him to be guilty of bribery should ponder. If you see danger in Trumpism or think Trump is an authoritarian menace, he argued, then you have the most to lose if his presidency ends with impeachment and removal, making Trump “a martyr in the eyes of his supporters” rather than a defeated loser––and leaving a sizable faction convinced that but for removal, he would have won reelection.

“Future Republicans will seek to campaign on Trumpism without Trump, adopting his positions and perhaps his tone on immigration, racial and religious minorities, the rule of law, and nonchalance towards foreign dictators,” Geraghty predicted. “There will be a ‘stabbed in the back’ narrative built around Republicans who support impeachment. If you genuinely believe that this country has taken a terrible turn for the worse since January 2017, then you want Trump defeated at the ballot box, soundly and thoroughly.” Only then, he concludes, will the Republican Party adopt a different approach.

Defeat might indeed weaken Trumpism more than impeachment and removal. But a failure to impeach or remove will set a precedent about presidential behavior that will prove corrosive in 2020 and that could grow even more dangerous in coming years.

Consider these facts:

  • Every president has tremendous discretion over U.S. foreign policy.
  • The United States is sufficiently powerful that even foreign-policy decisions that barely register to most Americans can dramatically affect foreign regimes and whole countries.
  • In a connected world, lots of those regimes possess the resources to weaken American politics by underwriting hacks, spying, trolling campaigns, or propaganda––and technological trends will only increase the number of countries that are so empowered.

That context helps to illuminate the stakes of the impeachment fight. So long as presidents fear that they will be impeached for pressuring foreign regimes to discredit their likely political opponents in upcoming elections, there will be a strong disincentive to exploit official powers for political gain and to invite foreign election interference. Whereas votes against impeachment and removal will set the opposite precedent: that Congress will impose no check on presidents using official powers to benefit their reelection chances by pressuring foreign regimes to undermine political opponents.

How might Trump respond to the latter outcome? One possibility is that Trump will wait for Democrats to choose a nominee, survey the foreign regimes that he can most effectively influence with his discretion over U.S. foreign policy, and encourage them to take actions that weaken the candidacy of his 2020 challenger.

For the record: Multiple members of the Trump administration and Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, participated in an effort to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation of the Biden family. When confronted, Trump not only declared his phone call with Ukraine’s leader “perfect,” but he defiantly gave a statement publicly calling on another country to investigate Joe Biden. Trump told television cameras, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”

If the House nevertheless votes down impeachment, or if the Senate declines to convict, what seems more likely? That Trump will stop pressuring foreign regimes to undermine his challenger in the next presidential election, or that, having faced no consequences, he will redouble his efforts to get that foreign help?

And if that eventuality doesn’t bother partisan Republicans, they should imagine how they would feel if a future President Bernie Sanders threatened to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine or Venezuela or Cuba unless those regimes took actions to cast Tom Cotton or Nikki Haley in a negative light.