For at least six months before the midterm elections, Republicans had been warning supporters that if Democrats ever won the House, their first order of business — was there even any question? — would be to impeach President Donald Trump. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon went so far as to call the midterms an “up-or-down vote on impeachment.”
During Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s successful U.S. Senate campaign, he insisted that his Democratic opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, wanted to impeach not only Trump but Justice Brett Kavanaugh, too. McCaskill herself said just the opposite, but Hawley raised money on those claims anyway. “Every politician who stands up to (the Democrats) will be threatened with removal,” Hawley said in a fundraising email.
Trump sounded the same alarms, adding that if he were impeached, “the market would crash,” and “everybody would be very poor.” This week, he continued in that vein, predicting that “the people would revolt.” There were literally millions of reasons for this approach, because as former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski explained last spring, “The threat of impeachment is something that unifies everybody in the party,”
For the most part, however, House Democrats have been and still are a lot less eager than advertised to begin impeachment proceedings. Removing a president is painful for the country even if it’s necessary, and members of Congress vividly recall how impeaching Bill Clinton for lying under oath about sex backfired on Republicans.
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Many members of Congress still serving today were there for that Pyrrhic GOP victory and don’t need to be reminded that the overreach of their colleagues across the aisle only made Clinton more popular, boosting his approval ratings and fueling the Democratic pick-up of five House seats in the 1998 midterms.
Nancy Pelosi, the former and future House speaker, resisted considerable pressure to impeach President George W. Bush when she got the gavel the first time. It’s completely unsurprising that she’s said impeaching Trump “is not someplace that I think we should go.” An impeachment, as she’s said, is an inherently “divisive activity” that requires broad bipartisan support. (And the way she owned Trump in their televised White House meeting this week, why bother?)
Everything, of course, depends on what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has found, and we still know relatively little about that.
New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, who is likely to chair the House Judiciary Committee that would draft and pass any articles of impeachment, is one of several prominent House Democrats who have said that if it is proven that Trump directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to break campaign finance laws, that would be an impeachable offense. But he and others have also said that whether that would “justify an impeachment is a different question.”
Even now that Trump has been identified in court as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal crime, both of our local Democratic representatives in Congress are proceeding with extreme caution as well, as they should be.
Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said in a statement to The Star’s editorial board that “I am resisting the call of impeachment, even though I understand the seriousness of the alleged felonies against ‘Individual 1’ by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.”
Federal prosecutors in New York say “Individual 1,” aka Donald Trump, asked Cohen to buy the silence of two women who claimed to have had affairs with him, and it is no stretch to say that he may well be president as a result. Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison this week, pleaded guilty to tax fraud, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal. Deep into his presidential run, Trump was still trying to finalize that long-sought agreement — while claiming that there was no hidden reason he routinely praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly would also have personally benefited from the deal.
Cleaver said that the prospect of impeachment “is so serious that I have declared internally that I will fight off the urge to impeach until I am able to read the full report from Mueller, which I am hopeful we will receive sometime in the spring.” To do otherwise, he knows, wouldn’t be right or smart.
Sharice Davids, who next month will be sworn in to represent the Third Congressional District in Kansas, is even more careful than usual on this topic. During her recent three-week orientation for incoming House freshmen, she said she didn’t hear anyone even raise the subject of impeachment.
All Davids can say for sure about the investigation, she said, is that Mueller and his investigators must be allowed to complete their work. Beyond that, “I actually think it would be irresponsible for me to speculate about the outcome ... You shouldn’t come in with predetermined ideas about it.”
During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the central argument of House Republicans was that America must uphold the rule of law by removing a president who had disqualified himself from holding the highest office by perjuring himself to hide an affair.
It’s far from clear that today’s Democrats would impeach even if Mueller uncovered evidence that Trump protected his presidential prospects by paying off a porn star and a Playboy model.
Would obstructing justice by trying to shut down a federal investigation into “the Russia thing” be enough of a threat to the rule of law to require impeachment? How about unconstitutionally profiting from foreign governments whose officials, say, started staying in your hotels to curry your favor? Is abuse of power by attempting to prosecute political adversaries an offense that would merit impeachment? Or the unconstitutional imprisonment of immigrant children, maybe?
If a bipartisan consensus really is required, anything short of proof that Trump helped a hostile foreign power subvert our democracy is unlikely to convince Donald Trump’s GOP. If those who tell pollsters that there is nothing Trump could do to lose their support are to be taken at their word, even that might not matter. So while Davids, Cleaver and other House Democrats must remain open to acting on whatever Mueller has found, no wonder they’re in no hurry to get ahead of him.