Over the weekend I started idly jotting down some thoughts about the impeachment process which is currently spinning up against Mr. Trump. Before I had the chance to get very far, Ari Paul posted a piece entitled “The Left Case for Impeachment.” I (and I think it’s fair to also say “we”) try not to be too self-referential around here. But I do have some thoughts on the topic that are not really a rejoinder to what Ari had to say, but more in the nature of some other considerations.
Impeachment has taken on a pronouncedly eschatological quality in the public discourse of people running from the “Never Trump” rump on the right all the way to progressive end of the left of the political spectrum in the United States. This is really about what one would expect given all that’s happened in the last two and a half years.
Politically responsible Americans as a group have been waiting for some kind of tipping point which would relieve them of the humiliation of having a man with the mentality of a truculent five-year-old occupying the oval office. This is viewed by wide swathes of sensible public opinion as a blot on the national escutcheon the removal of which will necessarily lead to better days.
Of course, Mr. Trump’s removal from office would, in all likelihood, result in a Pence presidency, but even that nauseous eventuality is commonly viewed as a presently less immediate danger to the long-term health of the institutions of the republic. This is one of those cases in which the bar for “better” is simply extremely low.
The first thing that needs to be said about impeachment, irrespective of its desirability for this or that political tendency, is that it was unavoidable once the whistleblower complaint was filed and the edited transcript of the phone call was released. Nancy Pelosi is a canny political operator, whatever else you can say about her. In the preceding six months she had done everything short of hiring a skywriter to signal her disinclination to initiate impeachment proceedings. Once the cat was out of the Ukrainian bag her hand was forced.
There are, as has been noted elsewhere) some very significant downsides and risks for the Democrats in this situation. Chief among these is that the chances that Mr. Trump will actually be convicted in a trial in the Senate are truly subatomic. Any Republican who votes to impeach will suffer some or all of the following consequences: excoriation by Fox News, a well-funded primary challenge by one of the many denizens of the lunatic fringe of the political right, and the financial equivalent of Siberian exile by the funding arm of the GOP.
I have had numerous acquaintances in politics and academia attempt to convince me in recent days that a) Trump is much abhorred by the rank and file of the Republican congressional delegation, and b) that when bullies lose control it tends to happen quickly. Oddly (and this is really neither here nor there) several of these conversations have involved references to Nicolai Ceausescu. I suspect that both things are true, but even taken together they don’t add up to a reason to be particularly optimistic about getting shot of Mr. Trump in the current process.
There are also a number of other factors to be considered. This week has seen the web of (ostensibly actionable) wrongdoing spread to Mike Pompeo and Bob Barr, and further still. Mr. Trump has himself implicated Mike Pence. It came out this week that the latter’s chief advisor was on the notorious Zelensky call, that he was probably briefed at least three times on its contents, and that he personally went to Poland to meet with Mr. Zelensky thereafter. Even Mr. Pence’s defenders can’t seem to come up with a better rejoinder than to argue that the fact that he was shown this material didn’t mean that he read and/or understood it.
Even on the best account, this is hardly an advertisement for Mr. Pence’s administrative and political abilities. But given the choice between stupidity and criminality, the smart money has tended to opt for the former, and so it goes with Mr. Pence’s partisans.
It is hardly to be doubted that Mr. Trump’s attempts to rope his vice president into complicity in his actions is meant as a message to any Republicans in the Senate who might be considering casting a vote in defense of the country. This was clearly an assertion that if Mr. Trump were to go down others would break is his fall, and this would include Mr. Pence, the darling of the evangelical right.
To a great extent, the question of whether the impeachment of Mr. Trump is or should be desirable from the perspective of the left hinges on how one reads the likely outcomes. If the trial in the Senate fails to convict (Ladbrokes is offering 6/4 in favor of conviction but that seems overly optimistic) then that arrow is no longer in the quiver. Corrupt as he is, it’s hard to imagine a second impeachment happening if the first one failed. Even if it did it would only serve to intensify the narrative of persecution that is so popular with Mr. Trump’s supporters, and in any case failed impeachment #1 then creates to the basis for further choruses of “I’ve been exonerated (again).”
It is arguable that having impeachment continue to hang over the administration was at least as politically valuable actually pulling the trigger. This was clearly Pelosi’s thinking and perhaps was not off the mark. The options in terms of actual legal measures that the Democrats might undertake were limited both by the colonization of the Justice Department by Trump loyalists and by the packing of the federal bench with figures incompetent, politically radical and morally dubious.
The fact that the Supreme Court now contains two Trump appointees (and two men plausibly accused of sexual assault) illustrates the unlikelihood of the Democrats obtaining relief at the highest levels of the American judiciary, and even this doesn’t take account of Mr. Trump’s capacity to obtain compliance with the promise of pardons. Perhaps the possibility of action at some later point (at least with regard to impeachment) might have kept some things in play that will go by the boards if the process misfires.
In any case, and pace his recent statements on the topic, Mitch McConnell is actually under no statutory obligation to actually hold a trial in the Senate. Having time and again demonstrated cynicism to be his guiding political value, he certainly might decide to brazen it out, asserting that the issues arising from attempts to strong arm the Ukrainians were just a rehash of things that the Mueller investigation had already shown not to be actionable. Or he might organize a trial for the purpose of pronouncing Mr. Trump innocent, the spectacular value of which hardly needs to be described.
The possibility exists, however small, that the whole thing might actually succeed. This involves a number of other questions for those on the left. The likeliest possibility is that Mr. Trump goes down and then congressional Republicans cynically firewall the other guilty parties in the administration. While it’s unlikely that Mr. Pence could win a national election in 2020, he could at least render the party some service by pardoning Mr. Trump and whoever else might be caught in the web à la Gerald Ford.
This is also the question, which Ari quite properly raised, of the Democratic Party taking the wrong implications from all of this. The Democrats have never needed much prompting to put forward someone old, white, and corrupt to carry the party banner. Just because Mr. Trump’s attempts to get the Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Joe Biden were illegal and unethical doesn’t mean that Mr. Biden wasn’t corrupt.
Personally, I would like to see Mr. Trump impeached, if only because it would stick the boot into an ego both enormous and incredibly fragile. The question of whether this is an outcome that leftists can embrace is an open one. Even if Mr. Trump’s regime collapsed tomorrow it has still wrought catastrophic damage on the institutions of the republic. For leftists of the “the worse the better” persuasion or those who think those institutions are a pure sham offering no prospects for concrete improvements to the situation of the oppressed, the question of impeachment is moot. For those with a more nuanced (not to say pollyanna-ish) view, the question of outcomes has much more concrete significance.
The case for impeachment does, I am convinced, offer plausible paths forward for the left. Impeachment is a thing that’s happening in any case, so perhaps there is little point left in arguing about it. But it does seem that there is much that might be lost in this process and many reasons why even those with a jaundiced view of the current regime and its works might have reason to regret that things have played out just this way.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Vadon. Published under a Creative Commons license.