Impeach Trump: why Republicans, not Democrats are talking up the prospect


By one count the president has nine impeachable offenses to his name but the politics of removing him from office are complicated

Donald Trump and the Republicans want to talk about his impeachment and removal from office. Democrats would really rather not.

The political paradox was laid bare this week when the president warned on Fox News: “If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think everybody would be very poor. You would see numbers that you wouldn’t believe.”

Empirical proof of this dire prophecy will have to wait, but Trump’s conjuring of his presidency reaching its ultimate reality TV denouement – the late-night showdown on Capitol Hill, the final defiant speech to tearful staff, the helicopter taking off from the White House lawn – came after his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, stood in court and directly implicated him in a federal crime.

Pleading guilty in New York to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations, Cohen claimed Trump directed him to pay “hush money” to two women who allege extramarital affairs ahead of the 2016 election. The scandal, twinned with the financial crimes convictions of Trump’s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort in another court more than 200 miles away, revived demands for the president’s departure.

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US internet searches about “impeachment” soared, according to Google Trends. The word was seemingly uttered every five minutes on cable TV. Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, wrote that he had long been sceptical but “Michael Cohen’s guilty plea changes this. The constitution’s standard for impeachment is ‘Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ The standard is now met.”

By some experts’ reckoning, Trump has now committed nine impeachable offences. If Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could be forced to face the music, the logic goes, why isn’t he? Around the world, observers are left asking: why are Democrats so cautious about this, so milquetoast?

LaTosha Brown, a civil rights activist in Atlanta, Georgia, said: “We’re past Watergate right now, we’re past Clinton. There’s more incriminating evidence. Why does the line keep getting pushed back?”

Yet for Democratic leaders, impeachment is the manoeuvre that dare not speak its name. While they have not issued formal instructions to the rank and file, this week Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, declared it was “not a priority” and published a letter urging members to “stay focused on delivering our strong economic message” and “cleaning up corruption to make Washington work”.

Their reasoning appears to be both principled and strategic.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign should be allowed to run its course, Democrats argue, especially in the current hyperpartisan environment. Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist, said: “The only way for it to have credibility politically and not tear the country apart is to let Mueller complete his investigation.”

Second, Democrats fear they could be accused of overreach, that pushing for impeachment now would backfire in November’s midterm elections, just when they seem poised to retake the House. It might turn out to be the magic elixir that fires up Republicans wary of an attempt to overturn the result of the 2016 presidential poll.

Donald Trump: ‘If I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash, I think everybody would be very poor.’ Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and the man who chose Bill Clinton to lead the revival of the party, said: “If we keep our heads down and run on issues and let the news take care of itself, we don’t need to politicise the judicial system. Let the facts speak for themselves because they are clear.”

Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, agreed. “Democrats would be well advised to wait for the Mueller report,” he said. “It will either provide a wealth of factual confirmation and a blueprint for what would be an indictment, or it will not. If it does, Democrats would have no choice but to proceed. If it does not, they would have no choice but to stand down.”

Then there is the pragmatic point. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank, continued: “At this stage there is an enthusiasm gap between the bases of the respective parties. The only chance the Republicans have to close this gap is to charge that the Democratic party is seeking to undo the result of the 2016 election through legal processes.”

Democrats are already fired up to vote in November, he added. “It’s Republicans who need to be ginned up. So the consequences would be asymmetrical and not in the Democrats’ favour.

“Up until now, the leaders of the Democratic party have quite intelligently downplayed the issue. They think they have a winning hand and they’re right about that. If you have a winning hand, why take the risk that the other player will draw a joker?”

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‘A referendum on Trump’

By this logic, it is small wonder that Republicans are eager to turn the midterms, where Trump is not on the ballot, into a bareknuckle fight for his political life. His lawyer Rudy Giuliani said earlier this month: “This election is going to be about impeachment or no impeachment.” Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, told Politico this week: “This is a referendum on Trump, up-or-down vote on impeachment. This other side, they’re very motivated – and they’re motivated for one thing: they want to impeach Donald Trump.”

Desire for impeachment among many progressive activists is undeniable. The grassroots organisation MoveOn has called for it since May last year, when Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, widely seen as a crude attempt to obstruct justice. Ben Wikler, its Washington director, said Republicans’ failure to hold congressional hearings “makes a mockery” of the rule of law.

Motivation cuts both ways, he argued. “Maybe there are some Trump supporters who will be inspired by impeachment talk to turn out, but there might also be Democrats and independents who are not inspired to turn out if Democrats do not follow the facts to their conclusion.”

Critics argue that the party is out of touch with citizens who crowd into town halls across the country, urging an end to what they see as America’s nightmare. Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, has poured millions of dollars into Need to Impeach, which launched last October.

The campaign now has more than 5.6 million petition signers, of whom roughly 80% are Democratic voters; some 7,000 joined on Thursday alone. Kevin Mack, its lead strategist, said the organisation has worked with a group of constitutional scholars who had found eight impeachable offences even before this week, when Trump was identified in court as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal crime.

Billionaire Tom Steyer speaks during a rally calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment at San Francisco City Hall on 24 October 2017. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“A lot of people say we should wait for Robert Mueller but the question first off is, what if he gets fired?” Mack said. “What if he gets diminished in his role because of all the games the Trump people can play?”

He also rejected the strategic argument that impeachment could narrow the enthusiasm gap for the midterms. “There’s not a single data point to prove the theory that talking about impeachment is firing up Republicans more than it is firing up Democrats,” he said.

Instead he pointed to polling that found more than 70% of Democrats are motivated by impeachment whereas only around 20% of Republicans are, with the latter motivated more by issues such as immigration. Not a single Republican campaign ad has featured impeachment as far as he knows, Mack said.

“The Democratic leadership is making a mistake. They’re trying to be too clever, as if they don’t talk about it, it won’t be talked about. But people are talking about it. It’s going to be an issue in this campaign, whether Washington likes it or not.”

‘It varies based on the race’

Some Democrats have taken up the cause but they remain few and far between. Congressman Al Green of Texas forced two floor votes on impeachment over the past year, earning the support of only 58 and then 66 party members. Vocal backers include Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California, a lightning rod for Trump’s racially charged attacks; Congressman Beto O’Rourke, challenging Ted Cruz for a Senate seat in Texas; rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is poised for victory in a deeply Democratic New York House district; and actor Cynthia Nixon, a longshot candidate for governor of New York state.

But the message is likely to go down less well in marginal seats where Democrats seek to woo independents and disaffected suburban Republicans, who have little appetite for a drawn-out political bloodbath in Washington.

Dave Handy, a political organiser who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, said: “It really varies based on the race. Like most things in the party, it’s probably not sensible to have a blanket strategy.”

There might come a moment when impeachment fails to rally Republicans, he suggested. “If things trend as they have, this could get worse for Republicans and there would be a tipping point where they will be demoralised. We’re quickly approaching a point where it will be difficult to say with a straight face that the president of the United States has not engaged in criminal behaviour.”

An argument against impeachment? The possible future president, Mike Pence. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

The US constitution stipulates that impeachment takes place in the House if a majority approves articles of impeachment previously approved by committee. The matter then goes to the Senate, where a two-thirds majority vote is required to convict the president. He is then removed from office.

Even if Democrats do win the House in a landslide, Republicans seem likely to retain control of the Senate, ensuring the Trump’s demise remains a remote prospect. Fox News and other conservative media would also be guaranteed to launch a fierce backlash, claiming the will of the people was being subverted. Some Democrats are also mindful to be careful what they wish for: President Mike Pence.

Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and Trump critic, believes that a concerted push for impeachment would misjudge the national mood and “absolutely backfire” on Democrats.

“Clinton committed perjury and lost his law licence but people didn’t think it was enough to remove him from power,” he said. “Donald Trump paid off a porn star but again people don’t think it’s enough to remove him.”

He added: “Cohen strengthens the Democrats’ case for checks and balances. This president needs a check and balance and Americans are fine with that. They love a divided government; they give us divided government all the time. Trump is drunk on power and the people want to give him a strong shot of Democratic caffeine.”

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