No, Impeachment Did Not Backfire or Enable Trump

An odd narrative is beginning to emerge from disparate sources in both leftist and mainstream journalistic corners that impeachment was a mistake, because Trump’s imminent acquittal by the Senate in a sham trial supposedly frees him from all Constitutional restraint. While leftist versions of this argument can be found all over social media, a puzzling version of this argument even appears today in the New York Times:

Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to foresee the lesson of the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump. “When you strike at a king,” Emerson famously said, “you must kill him.”

Mr. Trump’s foes struck at him but did not take him down.

With the end of the impeachment trial now in sight and acquittal assured, a triumphant Mr. Trump emerges from the biggest test of his presidency emboldened, ready to claim exoneration and take his case of grievance, persecution and resentment to the campaign trail.

But this analysis fails to outline an alternative that would have constrained Trump more than a failed impeachment does. Certainly, some democratic socialist critics would argue (I believe wrongly) that most Americans don’t care about Trump’s abuses of power when inequality, healthcare and climate change are such pressing concerns. Ironically, the centrist wing of the party consistently opposed impeachment on very similar grounds, arguing that impeaching Trump would inflame his base in the toughest “frontline” districts, empowering him in its ultimate failure and distracting from a focus on bread-and-butter pocketbook issues.

The challenge, of course, is that if a president is allowed to cheat by any means to secure his own re-election without consequences, then it doesn’t matter how much their opponents focus on material benefits or kitchen table issues because the election isn’t fair to begin with.

Much to the consternation of myself and many other progressive advocates, House leadership long resisted impeaching Trump on a wide variety of issues from obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation to emoluments and much else. The idea was to hold Trump accountable electorally rather than pursue an impeachment that was destined to fail. Those of us on the opposing side argued that respect for rule of law and democratic norms necessitated impeachment for obstruction, emoluments and Trump’s other transgressions. Be that as it may, leadership decided that it was most prudent for both the electoral health of the Democratic Party and democracy for the voters to have the deciding word on Trump, rather than a Congressional judicial process.

But the calculation necessarily shifted when it became clear that Trump, buoyed by having skated past the Mueller report without consequence, decided to brazenly attempt to cheat in the presidential election by forcing a foreign official to manufacture dirt on one of his more feared political opponents. It would be difficult to hold Trump accountable electorally if the election itself isn’t fair.

It’s hard to understand how failing to even attempt to impeach him for doing so would empower and embolden him less than a failed Senate conviction. If a guilty person gets away with a crime without even so much as an arrest and a trial, they are more likely to recommit the crime than if they at least are forced to into the discomfort of publicity and fear of consequences.

Could Trump immediately begin to cheat in similar and worse ways, once the craven Republican Senate acquits? Of course. But he would already be doing so anyway without hesitation if the whistleblower had never stepped forward, and if the House had never made the effort to impeach.

It was worth it. The only way to stand up to a bully is to punch back, and history would not have been kind to the Democratic majority in the House had it avoided doing all it could to hold Trump accountable on the basis of political expediency or fear of emboldening him.

 

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.