There are good reasons to be wary of impeachment talk,” wrote the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt earlier this year. The sentence was his way of introducing 800 words of impeachment talk, an entire column’s worth of the stuff. He couldn’t help himself.
Many people in Washington these days pretend to be wary of the subject of Donald Trump’s possible impeachment before they call for it. We all agree the odds of the House of Representatives impeaching the president are, at the moment, negligible. This makes impeachment talk fanciful at best. Among Democrats, views range from a Beach Boys–like “maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true” to “we have to wait till next year.” As for Republicans, they have repackaged a phrase from an earlier era: You can have our president when you pry him from our cold dead fingers….
Impeachment talk flames up whenever news from the chattering class’s number-one topic—the legal difficulties of the president, from Stormy Daniels to Russian conspirators—briefly runs dry. The thought of impeachment is much more stimulating to a Washingtonian than trying to figure out why Obamacare premiums are rising or whether the preliminary revenue projections from tax reform are likely to prove accurate. Scandal junkies construct timelines of obscure, unrelated events of unknown importance involving marginal figures (Did George Papadopoulus meet with Joseph Misfud in London before or after Sam Clovis recruited Carter Page for the Trump campaign???). The convoluted narratives compensate for the fact that none of us has so far uncovered anything that might carry a hint of a whisper of an offense that could incriminate Trump—none of us, that is, but Robert Mueller and his band of Javerts. And maybe not even them.
Leonhardt, like his colleagues at the Times, is impatient with this uncertain state of affairs. His column was meant to demonstrate that even our meager collection of undisputed facts is enough to put the president in the dock. The particular crime or misdemeanor he has in mind is obstruction of justice—the very same charge used to impeach Bill Clinton. In his bill of particulars, Leonhardt notes that Trump had asked the FBI director, James Comey, to lighten up in his pursuit of Trump’s former adviser Michael Flynn. He asked two other advisers to make the same request. After Trump fired Comey, he tweeted about it triumphantly and a few days later told an interviewer on television that he’d fired Comey because of “the Russia thing.” Several times he publicly berated his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for letting the investigation proceed. Then, again taking to twitter, Trump angrily denounced Andrew McCabe, another G-man involved in the investigation.
“Obstruction of justice involves intent,” Leonhardt instructed his readers. And plainly these actions reveal Trump’s intent.
You can say that again, David! (Just wait—I bet he does.) How can anyone doubt Trump’s intent? He wants the investigation to end, says so repeatedly, and will do anything to make this happen, short of shutting it down himself. During the hyperbolic Trump era, I have grown leery of intensifiers, from both the president and his critics, but even I must admit that if Trump’s behavior constitutes obstruction of justice, it is surely the most ostentatious display of obstruction in the history of…okay, the universe.
Even the behind-scenes actions Leonhardt includes in his indictment, such as Trump’s telling the White House counsel to fire Mueller, would in effect have been carried out in the full light of day. At least Richard Nixon tried to keep his obstruction on the QT. A man who brags publicly about what he’s doing as he’s doing it, and then loudly complains when it doesn’t have the desired effect, probably isn’t intending to commit a crime. Such a man may be a sociopath—but not necessarily a criminal.
The thinness of the case against Trump, as it stands now, is really beside the point. Impeachment fever has become a permanent condition in the body politic. Nearly every president in the last half century has faced calls for impeachment, and not just from lunatics. When Ronald Reagan appeared (incorrectly) to be deeply involved in the Iran Contra affair, many of his opponents called for impeachment. Bill Clinton, as we know, was well and truly impeached. The idea of impeaching George W. Bush was catnip for left-wing Democrats from the moment the Iraq adventure went sour. Even the usually level-headed legal commentator Andrew McCarthy wrote a book with the subtitle “Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.”
At least McCarthy’s effort was best viewed as a thought experiment: Can a legal case for impeachment, even one that’s airtight, survive without popular support? The latter is as crucial as the former. Recall that Nixon’s public reason for stepping down was that his political base on Capitol Hill had eroded to the point where the president would be essentially powerless for the rest of his term. (Of course, the loss of his political power also made his impeachment inevitable.) In the laws of political thermodynamics, any bold action can create an opposite and equal reaction, and it doesn’t get much bolder than presidential impeachment.
To cite a small example: Once Republicans raised the possibility of impeachment, Obama’s defenders leapt into action. They were building fundraising campaigns around McCarthy’s book a month before the publication date. A more consequential example: The legally impeccable but widely unpopular impeachment of Clinton killed Republicans’ hoped-for gains in the 1998 midterm elections.
These lessons are not lost on professional Democrats and soberer activists. When six Democratic congressmen formally introduced articles of impeachment late last year, party leaders, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, treated them like overenthusiastic children tracking mud all over the nice new carpet. Even Adam Schiff, the president’s most vocal congressional critic, took to the New York Times op-ed page to stifle impeachment talk.
It’s the smart move. Party leaders had much the same reaction when Democrats last succumbed to impeachment fever, in the election year 2006, under President Bush. Not coincidentally, 2006 was also the year of a Democratic landslide in congressional races—the same result Democrats hope for this fall. A serious bid for impeachment that year would likely have rallied the Republicans and stemmed the Democratic tide.
But that was a long time ago, and between then and now a different Democratic Party has emerged beneath the feet of leaders like Pelosi and Hoyer, whose establishmentarian realism annoys their base just as Paul Ryan’s relative moderation rankled Trump voters. Schiff may have been right to call impeachment talk “bait,” a trap waiting to be sprung by cunning Republicans. Ordinary Democrats are eager to chomp. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 71 percent of Democrats favor impeachment proceedings if their party takes the House of Representatives in November. Over the last six months the Democratic activist/billionaire Tom Steyer has collected 5.2 million signatures for his impeachment petition.
Republicans react with mock horror, begging the Democrats not to throw them in the impeachment briar patch. Trump has even made it a riff in the frequent “campaign style” speeches he can’t resist making to Republicans out in cow country. He singles out Pelosi, of course, but also Maxine Waters, who has been calling for Trump’s removal since his inauguration. “She’s a low-IQ individual,” the president says, gallantly, as his audiences cheer.
For Democrats like Leonhardt, the case for impeachment has already been made; for Democrats like Waters, the case doesn’t need to be made. Together they constitute a large majority of their party. Schiff may caution them to wait for the special counsel to finish his investigation, but why? Impeachment is the only solution to a problem more fundamental than Russian collusion or Trump’s obstruction. For them the problem is Trump himself, the mere fact of his presidency. If the House falls into Pelosi’s lap this fall, she will have their fervor to thank for it, and suddenly all this fanciful impeachment talk won’t seem so fanciful after all.