It's looking more and more likely that the president of the United States has committed some sort of crime. The Trump campaign likely violated campaign finance laws when Donald Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, arranged for secret payments to Trump's alleged mistresses. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has other threads to pull on as well, including the many lies told by Trump associates to both Congress and law enforcement and ties between the Trump Organization and the Russian government during the 2016 campaign, which we know more about thanks to court filings made by Mueller's team on Friday. There's no definitive proof that Trump himself is a criminal, but he sure seems to have been surrounded by people who later either got indicted or convicted of wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, talk of impeachment is in the air.
Longtime Trump foil Congresswoman Maxine Waters called the president a "criminal" who "must be brought up by the Congress of the United States for impeachment" in a Sunday MSNBC appearance. Though most other Democrats aren't quite on her level, the incoming heads of the House judiciary and intelligence committees were talking openly this weekend about the prospect of Trump being impeached and even facing jail time. Opinion columnists are noting that impeachment appears more likely than it did last week as a result of Mueller's latest court filings. There's evidence the Democratic base would cheer that outcome, with midterm exit polls finding that 77 percent of self-identified Democrats—and 40 percent of all voters—supported impeachment.
Somewhat ironically, this puts Democrats in a bad position. They'll be able to start impeachment proceedings any time they want once they officially get control of the House of Representatives next month. But there's every chance that impeachment would be a political disaster for Democrats, and the base should reconsider what their calls for impeachment actually mean in practice.
For starters, impeachment by itself doesn't get rid of the president. As Republicans found out in the Clinton years, It takes 67 senators to vote a president out of office after he's impeached by a majority of the House. Assuming every Democrat and Democratic-leaning independent votes to remove Trump, that means 19 Republicans would have to join them. That's improbable, to put it mildly, given that only a few GOP senators currently support legislation to stop Trump from firing Mueller.
In all likelihood, an impeachment hearing would cause the right to rise up in unified opposition and accuse the Democrats of overreaching and dividing the country and lying and probably even treason. Debates over whether Trump committed "high crimes and misdemeanors"—the constitutional requirement for impeachment—will dominate cable news and social media. Trump will tweet non-stop. Congress, which will already likely be deadlocked because of divided party rule, will grind to an even more dramatic halt. If you think that the media is too obsessed by Trump now, impeachment will have you longing to escape to an island so remote wi-fi can't reach you. And in all likelihood, all of that sound and fury won't come to anything when the Senate votes against taking Trump out—handing the president a victory that will probably come around the time of his 2020 reelection campaign.
The Democrats just won major gains in the midterms after focusing on healthcare, and economic populism seems like it could be a winning message. From Medicare for all to a green new deal, they have more policy ideas than they know what to do with, some of which are extremely popular in polls. A big part of the 2020 primary will be debating those ideas, then convincing voters that they can implement them. Impeachment, on the other hand, won't directly affect the lives of ordinary Americans and will likely involve obscure legal arguments over obstruction of justice and campaign finance law. Maybe Democrats can win those arguments, but "Republicans will take your healthcare away and give tax breaks to the rich" is a much better call to arms going into 2020.
Voters who are extremely fired up about impeachment are also probably highly engaged Democratic voters already—Democrats should focus instead on issues that might bring around people who either voted Trump in 2016 or didn't feel inspired enough to vote at all.
Democrats don't need to be told this, of course. Congressman Steve Cohen, who was among the Democrats who introduced articles of impeachment in the House last year, doesn't plan to do so again. "It's difficult to get people right now to be on record for being a sponsor of an impeachment resolution," he told NPR. "We may get there, but we’re not there now,” is how Angus King, an independent senator from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, put it on Meet the Press. Though there is a lot of difference between Trump and Bill Clinton, Democratic leaders surely know that Clinton's approval ratings were highest in the middle of his impeachment fight.
The problem is that the Mueller investigation could wind up uncovering such slam-dunk evidence of Trump committing a crime that Democrats would pretty much have to start impeachment proceedings—think the equivalent of the "smoking gun" tape from the Watergate scandal, a recording of Trump personally admitting he's aware of illegal activity and endorsing it. In such circumstances you'd like to imagine that Republicans would come around to the idea that Trump needed to go, but it seems probable that Fox News and the rest of conservative media would circle the wagons and refuse to admit any wrongdoing on the president's part. Democrats shouldn't leave obvious illegal conduct unpunished, but even clear evidence of a crime might not be enough to get rid of Trump, and barring shocking revelations from the Mueller investigation that unite the country against him, no one should regard it as a realistic endgame to his presidency.
The GOP's loyalty to Trump has created a dynamic where it seems the only plausible way to remove him from office is through an election. This isn't the worst thing—a popular, widespread rejection of Trump could be seen as the breaking of a kind of fever that has gripped the country since at least 2016. But if that's the case Democrats should focus on what can swing voters to their side in 2020. That means bread and butter issues like the minimum wage and healthcare. It doesn't mean impeachment.
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