Can Impeachment Succeed?

Democrats are doing their duty by investigating Trump. Whether they can sway Republicans remains to be seen.

After a whistleblower complaint alleged that Donald Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” House Democrats had little choice but to start an impeachment inquiry. If Democrats were ever going to move forward with the process, a formal complaint from an intelligence officer provided a clear justification. If they did not respond, nobody else would.

Many Democratic voters and left-leaning pundits are optimistic that this Trump scandal, unlike the others, won’t fade away. Lili Loofbourow wrote that Republicans are flailing in response to the inquiry and are unable to unite on an angle to defend Trump. Jamelle Bouie believes Trump is headed for new lows. John Nichols is confident this is the beginning of the end of Trump’s presidency, either through impeachment or the 2020 election. They may all be right.

Democrats started the impeachment inquiry knowing that they did not have bipartisan support in Congress and that a conviction in the Senate is unlikely. They opened the inquiry nonetheless, partly to serve as a constitutional check against a dangerous president, but also because they recognize the value in exposing previously unseen levels of Trump’s malfeasance. Using Congressional authority will allow them to investigate not only Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but also Trump’s tax returns, business interests, and connections to Russia. By thoroughly investigating Trump at long last, and airing their findings publicly, House Democrats will put Trump on the defensive and force Republicans to rethink their support for the president. That, in itself, is a victory for Democrats.

But if the last few years are any indication, we should temper our optimism that Congressional Republicans and Trump voters will abandon the president. After the inquiry and its discoveries are filtered through the same media ecosystem—and consumed by the same partisans—that led to Trump’s election, there is a very real possibility that few hearts and minds will be changed.

To be clear, Trump deserves to be impeached and almost certainly will be. As president, he asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, leveraging American national security to damage a domestic political adversary. Trump’s supporters may argue that the call’s transcript does not establish a “quid pro quo” because Trump did not explicitly threaten to withhold aid to Ukraine unless Zelensky investigated Biden. But what constitutes “improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of the office”—one of three types of conduct Congress has previously identified as grounds for impeachment—is sufficiently vague that it’s not clear any “pro quo” is required. The simple act of a president asking a foreign official to investigate a political opponent is arguably sufficient grounds for impeachment on its own.

Furthermore, Democrats have other foundations on which they can build a case for impeachment. Robert Mueller may have declined to decide whether Trump engaged in obstruction of justice, but that does not settle the question. Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and encouraging Lewinsky to lie, as well. Surely, then, Trump can be impeached for trying to limit the scope of the Russia investigation, firing former FBI Director James Comey, and for directing White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller.

If Democrats are willing to expand the scope of their investigation even further, they can also make a strong case that Trump has continuously misused his office “for an improper purpose or for personal gain,” which is another type of conduct previously identified as grounds for impeachment. Since Trump never divested himself of his businesses, he is arguably violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits federal officeholders from receiving payment from a foreign state or its representatives. Yet Trump has repeatedly blurred the lines between his office and his businesses, from openly pushing to hold the next G7 Summit at his property in Florida to receiving trademarks from the Chinese government after taking office. Democrats can convincingly argue that Trump has violated the emoluments clause multiple times.

Staring down the prospect of investigation into a myriad of alleged misconduct, in a different era, Trump’s fate would be sealed. Either the Senate would convict him, or he would resign before the proceedings, as Richard Nixon did. In today’s political climate, however, it’s easy to foresee how things may play out differently.

Progressive media will argue that Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, just as they argued that the Mueller report proved obstruction of justice. Conservative media will criticize the investigation the same way they undermined the Mueller report–by calling it a “partisan witch hunt” Congressional Democrats will make the case that Trump is unfit for office. Congressional Republicans will say “nothing to see here” and attack Democrats for conducting the investigation. Even if the House impeaches Trump, the Senate will most likely not convict him, after which Trump will wrongfully claim “total exoneration.”

Trump would then become the first president to run for re-election after being impeached, but there is little evidence that would deter his supporters. Trump’s campaign for president made it abundantly clear who he is: a con artist who paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit after allegedly defrauding over 6,000 students through Trump University; a serial liar who refuses to release his tax returns, a philanderer who bragged about taking advantage of women on tape. All of that was secondary to the nearly 63 million Americans voted for him anyway, because in today’s political climate, most voters prefer a deeply flawed candidate who shares their ideology to a more honest, qualified, experienced candidate who does not. As the gap between Republicans and Democrats has widened, so, too, has the scope of what partisans will tolerate if the end result is one of their team members in power. The same Republicans who held their nose and voted for Trump despite his massive shortcomings because it meant conservative Supreme Court justices and tax cuts, would likely do so again to prevent a wealth tax, universal health care, and stricter environmental regulations.

That isn’t to say Democrats were not right to start an impeachment inquiry, or that they should not proceed with a methodical investigation and present their findings in a clear, non-partisan manner. They are doing what Congress is supposed to do—responding to a credible complaint and trying to uncover information every voter should know. The ultimate question is whether the revelations will be powerful enough to break through the splintered media and unabashed partisanship that gave us President Trump in the first place.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.