Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The White House’s messaging throughout the impeachment process has been wildly inconsistent on nearly every count save one: Democrats are trying to overturn the 2016 election.

Other ideas have come and gone. President Donald Trump has insisted that he wasn’t pressuring foreign countries to intervene, and then done so again publicly. He has flip-flopped on what kind of trial he wants in the Senate. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney even changed his mind on whether there was a quid pro quo in the course of one afternoon.

Yet the claim of overturning has remained constant since shortly after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, in late September. In a reply brief over the weekend, the president’s lawyers accused Democrats of a “brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election” and of “nullifying an election and subverting the will of the American people.” The White House team made the same point on the Senate floor yesterday during debate on the rules for the trial.

The notion of overturning the election has persisted because it is a powerful (though not to say true) piece of messaging. The sound bite is shorthand that is easily understood—or perhaps easily misleads. Most crucially, it provides a way for Trump and his allies to evade talking about the substance of the accusations against him. As the shifting stories the White House has told make clear, that is a very difficult task, and there were few substantive defenses of the president yesterday. If, however, the whole point is to subvert the will of the people, then it short-circuits all that debate.

The problem is that the argument doesn’t hold up, for at least four reasons.

First, to label the impeachment a “brazen and unlawful attempt” to invalidate elections is to nullify the very point of impeachment. Although the Constitution provides for the voters to elect a president every four years, it also provides for Congress to impeach him or her between elections. There’s scholarly debate about whether impeaching a president for offenses that occurred before an election is proper, but it’s illogical to suggest that he cannot be impeached for offenses between elections because that would invalidate elections. Why else would impeachment exist?

Second, removing Trump from office (as remote a prospect as that is) wouldn’t hand the White House to Democrats. It would hand the presidency to Vice President Mike Pence, who is not only a fellow Republican, but for whom every Trump voter also voted, since Pence was Trump’s running mate.

Third, the claim of overturning the will of voters stems from Trump’s frequent but baseless assertion of a broad popular mandate. Despite what some of his opponents contend, Trump’s election was legitimate: The Electoral College and not the popular vote chooses presidents. But it remains the case that millions more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump, a fact that undermines his claims of a silent majority. That inconvenient fact explains why Trump has falsely claimed massive voter fraud in 2016; why he has repeatedly lied about his Electoral College margin of victory; and why he often brandishes an inaccurate map of electoral results by county, as he did at a White House event last week. This chimerical mandate undercuts the claim that impeachment subverts the will of the majority of Americans.

When President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, Democrats—including Pelosi—accused Republicans of trying to overturn the voters’ will. The claim was weak then, too, though there is one difference. Between Clinton’s reelection in 1996 and the impeachment vote, Americans voted in a 1998 midterm election that dealt the GOP a surprising setback, narrowing the party’s margin. That election served as a de facto national referendum on impeachment. There was an election between the 2016 election and Trump’s impeachment, too, and Democrats won a resounding victory in House races in that 2018 midterm.

Finally, and perhaps most simply, the impeachment is clearly about the 2020 election, not the previous one. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone almost got that right yesterday, telling the Senate, “They’re not here to steal one election. They’re here to steal two elections.” But this isn’t about 2016. If Democrats were seeking to overturn that race, they’ve done a miserable job at it. The impeachment vote didn’t come until the final days of the third year of Trump’s term, heading into a year that is unlikely to be especially productive, thanks to the upcoming election. In other words, Trump has already probably achieved most of what he will during this term in office. It’s too late to overturn the 2016 race.

When Democrats embarked on impeachment, they understood that it was unlikely the Senate would remove Trump, no matter how desperately some of them believe his removal to be needed. But they knew that the impeachment might influence the 2020 race: It could both hurt Trump’s reelection effort and force congressional Republicans to take a stand on impeachment that might hurt them in 2020. After all, impeachment is remarkably popular, and several polls even show majority or plurality support for removing Trump. This is why Democrats dragged out votes on specific evidentiary questions yesterday, forcing Republican senators to vote on each measure.

There is, naturally, great irony in the president’s defense team complaining that Democrats are trying to seek political advantage through the impeachment drama. The entire imbroglio started when Trump tried to coerce the Ukrainian government into assisting his own reelection prospects—using the power of the government for his personal gain. Democrats are merely using the Constitution’s provisions to their own political advantage.

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