Democrats Will Impeach Trump

September 30, 2019 – The Briefing, Vol. VII, Issue 37

This week:

  • Democrats will impeach Trump
  • Many reasons to doubt the seriousness of their case
  • Have they completely lost it? And will they lose?

The process: Democrats are convinced that they’ve got President Trump this time. They have stopped playing coy and are now pursuing impeachment in earnest, by name, without resistance from their leaders. Nancy Pelosi is on board — as Trump aptly put it, she has surrendered the gavel to her party’s left wing. A successful impeachment vote already appears to be inevitable, and the inquiry hasn’t even begun.

But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. Knowing that Trump won’t be removed from office, Democrats are interested in a rushed and fast impeachment inquiry. They want to get it over with as soon and as quickly as possible. This needs to please their base now while having as few electoral consequences as possible next year. 

The last thing they want is an impeachment trial in the middle of next year, when it can put pressure on vulnerable House Democrats and force the Democrats’ presidential nominee to take an awkward position in favor of removing his (or more likely her) political opponent from office. 

The case: Is the impeachment case something that conservatives should take seriously? The specific charge, based on a since-declassified conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s president, is that Trump subtly demanded a Ukrainian investigation of his own political enemies’ activity in that country, or else he would withhold military aid that had been passed by Congress and signed into law by himself.

That sounds like a pretty bad abuse of power. But it isn’t quite obvious that this is what happened. There are a number of good reasons to view Trump’s call differently. For example:

  1. If you actually have some experience listening to Trump, you understand that the man just says whatever is on his mind, usually without much forethought or self-control. (And no, what he says isn’t always what’s appropriate. It isn’t in this conversation — for example, there are obviously much more pressing matters that Trump should be discussing with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky than Crowdstrike and the Bidens.) In that vein, based on the transcript, it seems very likely that Trump only brought up Biden in the first place because the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine had been mentioned earlier. The conversation reads like one of Trump’s many free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness speeches. It does not read as if Trump had intended in advance to pressure President Zelensky by withholding U.S. funds if he failed to investigate Biden.
  2. In his conversation, Trump brings up and seriously drags other NATO leaders for failing to aid Ukraine. This is consistent with his second explanation for why funds were in fact delayed — that he wanted to pressure Germany and others to pony up, just as he has successfully pressured many NATO members to increase their defense spending. However, note that this explanation is different from the one he had offered earlier — that he withheld the funds due to fears of corruption within Ukraine.
  3. President Zelensky did not become aware that funds for Ukraine had been withheld until more than a month after the call, and the withholding of aid was never mentioned in the call. Taken together, these two facts This seems impossible if Trump had really intended to use the money as leverage.  
  4. Presidents have an amazing amount of latitude when it comes to how they conduct foreign affairs — perhaps too much. So although you can impeach a president for anything that a majority of the House will approve, it’s not at all easy to make a legal case — or even a public case — based on what’s in the call transcript and the whistleblower complaint.

In this light, one can understand why the White House has moved so quickly to declassify the materials involved — even though the call is potentially embarrassing in other ways (e.g., Trump’s comments on Angela Merkel). There is a great amount of confidence in the White House that there is no there there. Thus there is no desire to risk being accused of a cover-up. Trump’s legal team has clearly learned the lessons of past scandals in this regard. Even though this quick release of materials plays into Democrats’ goal of moving fast with impeachment, it is necessary. Foot-dragging would have ultimately created more trouble for Trump.

Impeachment Politics: The impeachment effort just began last week, so there hasn’t been much time for the public to form opinions on the subject. So far, the main results have been in grassroots fundraising — an enormous boost for Trump and for pro-impeachment Democrats. 

But the long-term political result of this risky play is highly unpredictable. 

Again an impeachable offense (as Gerald Ford once said) is whatever you can get a majority of the House to impeach over. By design, it is a political and not a legal process. And the public — not so much the partisans on Twitter, but the voters — will pass judgment on impeachment with a political response. 

Voters might warm to Democrats’ attempts to throw Trump out, especially given the highly negative nature of all media coverage of his presidency to date. But it is more likely that they will view this as an extraordinary and hard-to-justify step. After all, most House Democrats already favored impeachment before Trump’s call with Zelensky even happened. If they’ve just been looking for an excuse all along, then why should anyone believe that this is a legitimate reason for impeachment?

Keep an eye on the polls, because where this ends up with the public and the 2020 election is very much up in the air.

Primary politics of impeachment: One more thing. As we have noted previously, Elizabeth Warren continues to show signs of catching Joe Biden and overtaking him as the frontrunner. This impeachment story is helping her by harming Biden. It is genuinely embarrassing for Biden that his son took a shady do-nothing position with a Ukrainian energy firm for $50,000 per month at a time when the elder Biden was handling Ukrainian affairs for President Obama. It was an obviously corrupt arrangement, and the elder Biden was at least aware of it. 

Democratic primary voters might view this as a sign that a supposedly “safe” Biden nomination will backfire on them, just like a “safe” Hillary Clinton nomination backfired in 2016.