With Impeachment, Success Can Turn on Small Things

There are two main reasons why I talk more confidently about the president being removed from office than most progressives. The first is that I have immersed myself in the details of Trump’s relationship with Russia, beginning back in the earliest stages of Trump’s campaign, and I feel very strongly that the case against him is going to be stronger than many anticipate. The second is that I think people are severely underestimating how little actual support the president has within the Republican caucus in the Senate. I believe we can count on one hand how many senators actually want Trump to continue in office or to be the Republican nominee in 2020. Naturally, I could be wrong on both of these points, but I think when the case is laid out there will be very few senators who have any qualms about convicting the president or quietly orchestrating his resignation. The only thing that could protect him is fear that the Republican base still supports Trump and will punish any Republican who moves against him. But I also believe that both this support and the accompanying fear will be no match for the facts.

Having said that, there are still things that could make Trump’s survival more or less likely. From the beginning of his political career, the president has prospered by offering “alternative facts” and this has been a good match for the modern Republican Party which mastered this art during the run-up to the Iraq War and then during the presidency of Barack Obama. In the context of the Mueller probe, this has involved an effort to challenge the investigators and call into question their motives and objectivity. It has been effective enough to keep most Republican voters in the president’s corner. We’re entering a new phase where Democrats have some actual power to investigate, and it seems that the way the administration will defend itself is to attack the objectivity and fairness of the Democrats in much the same way as it has attacked Robert Mueller, James Comey and other DOJ and FBI officials.

Many Democrats sincerely believe the president has committed unforgivable and impeachable acts irrespective of any conspiracy or cover-up involving the Russians, but it is the outcome of the Russian investigation that will determine his fate and not his campaign finance violations, bank and wire fraud, caging and separation of children or violations of the Emoluments Clause. What’s important is that a certain threshold is met, not of evidence but of public acceptance of the evidence. And that means that things that call into question the fairness and judiciousness of the process are going to be the president’s most powerful defenses.

For this reason, it was unhelpful (as I pointed out on Thursday) for a Democratic lawmaker to introduce articles of impeachment on the first day of the new Congress. And it was also extremely unproductive for freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit to tell a MoveOn.org crowd on Thursday that “We will ‘impeach the mother****er!”

Having been caught on video making those remarks, I don’t suppose there was any point in apologizing, and she didn’t.

It’s nice to speak truth to power but it’s better to exercise power against power, and to do so successfully for the benefit of the nation and the world.  When the time comes, the president will argue that the game was rigged and his fate will depend on his ability to point to compelling examples of bias and prejudgment.  To me, the greater sin in Rep. Tlaib’s remarks was not that she promised impeachment (though that was ill-advised) but that she used a particularly nasty epithet to make her point. By making it personal, she did actual damage by providing ammunition to the president and his supporters. It’s not just that she created a kind of equivalence to offset concerns about the president’s temperament. Her comments will rally even unsympathetic people to the president’s side.

The removal of a president is very serious business, and it should be done in a calm, judicious and rigorously fair manner.  Failure to act in accordance with the circumstances will make an uncertain outcome even more uncertain.

The official line of the Democratic Party is that impeachment is still an open question that will depend on what the Mueller investigation produces. In general, Democratic lawmakers should follow along with that narrative. If some want to make the argument that the threshold has already been met, they should say so with some regret and trepidation about the consequences for our national unity, rather than calling the man a mother****er!

It should be kept in mind that the president needs to be removed from office because he is mentally and morally unfit for the job and poses an unacceptable risk to the health and security of the country and the world. Whatever helps us fix this is good, and whatever makes it (even incrementally) harder to fix is bad.

At this moment in time, grandstanding and name-calling and self-righteousness are no substitutes for seriousness, judiciousness, rigorous fairness, and honest regret. This is what the situation calls for, but it’s also essential to a process that must end with one party making a break with their leader for the good of the country. We don’t need people sticking with Trump just to spite loudmouths on the other side who somehow thought they were waging a productive fight.

If you’re a skeptic that small things like a freshman congressional representative calling the president of the United States a mother****er can have an unexpectedly big effect, go back to the debate over expanding Medicare that took place the debate over the Affordable Care Act. In that instance, Sen. Joe Lieberman backtracked on his prior support for a Medicare buy-in provision based solely on his antipathy for loudmouth Rep. Anthony Weiner. And Lieberman’s lack of support proved to be decisive in killing what would have been a major progressive triumph.

Despite my overall optimism that Trump will be removed from office, I acknowledge that will be a close call. In my opinion, the odds did not got better on Thursday, and it would be nice if our representatives were more mindful of the stakes.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com