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Delving Deeper Into the Mechanics and Debate Over Impeachment

Donald Trump Jerrold Nadler Judiciary Committee subpoena
TPM Illustration/Getty Images
June 5, 2019 9:41 a.m.

As usual, TPM Readers followed up with a flood of smart and often heated emails in response to my post yesterday on impeachment. I’m going to publish a number of them today and respond serially to points I should expand on or clarify as well as address new ones. The note below from TPM Reader JC gets into the point of just what we’re talking about when we talk about impeachment. I’ll address that and another point first.

Let me start with a concession. Yesterday I referred to moving immediately to impeachment as “silly” and “a waste of time”. Unsurprisingly this focused a lot of people’s attention. I took this as hyperbole. But it doesn’t give the seriousness of the question its due. Nor does it help persuade anyone to belittle something they feel so strongly about. Equally important, I’m not against impeachment. I simply think it’s a weapon that is more powerful in reserve than in use, at least until there’s more than a non-trivial or even conceivable chance of Trump being removed from office.

Now on to the question JC raises. Relatively few people I talk to say House Democrats should vote articles of impeachment literally today. In most cases they mean starting an impeachment inquiry today, which they argue will strengthen the House’s hands before the courts (I think this is wrong), up the ante politically, focus the public’s attention and is just the right thing to do. At some level the argument is, why not? You advance the ball and don’t have to really commit to anything.

That’s wrong. Historically impeachment inquiries have lasted about eight weeks, give or take. So once you commence an impeachment inquiry I think you’re starting a timer that leads you to a vote on articles of impeachment in a couple months. It seems crazy to me to put a two month time limit on the mountain of things Democrats need to be investigating. In theory, you could just declare its open-ended and say it won’t be bound by any arbitrary timeline. This was actually my thinking at first. But that’s naive. This greases the skids for actual impeachment on a pretty short timeline and ‘when will they impeach’ will become the question that overwhelms everything else.

Now, if you think Trump should be impeached that’s a feature not a bug. But if like me you think impeachment is a mistake, then I think inquiry and actual impeachment are revealed as pretty much the same thing, which is actually what it is intended to be. David Corn hit the crux of the issue to me on Twitter yesterday: “Once you officially start on impeachment, the impeachment narrative will overwhelm much of the oversight stories and details. The news will not focus on the particular scandals (“Foreign money flowed into Trump Inauguration Fund”!) but the idea & suitability of impeachment.”

Given that Trump will almost certainly not be removed from office, this captures why it’s a mistake. Actual wrongdoing and crimes are important to uncover and are actually politically damaging. Impeachment moves the focus to the mechanics of impeachment and the question of whether or not a President should be removed from office – a question on which the public is much more divided. That distracts both from what is important and what is politically damaging.

In any case, for present purposes, this is why I think starting an inquiry is a mistake. It’s really no different from immediate impeachment. High profile hearings and investigation, which Democrats need to start now but are not, can happen just as easily without starting that process.

With all that, here’s JC

What distinction are you making between impeachment and making an aggressive investigation?

If you mean by impeachment that the House votes this afternoon to send articles of impeachment over to the Senate, without first making an aggressive investigation, then obviously impeachment is just as ludicrous as you say it is.

I don’t have the impression that that is what anybody means by impeachment.

David Frum made the point in the Atlantic, which I think is valid, that Trumps offenses are so broad and varied that impeachment would focus the argument too narrowly on the specific words of the Constitution, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which the Republicans will always frame as meaning that there has to be sufficient evidence of breaking specific legal statutes to convict Trump in court beyond a shadow of a doubt. From that point of view, impeachment is a distraction.

But impeachment is still the core issue. If you say, we’re not going to impeach Trump, but we’re sure going to investigate him, that sounds like the old political dodge of killing an issue by sending it off to a committee for more investigation.

I don’t see how you can avoid the “I” word without sounding like you are not serious.

What issues are the Democrats going to run on to defeat Trump in 2020? Are we going to run on a platform of not impeaching Trump? Are we going to run on a centrist platform of moderation in all things, peace and calm and not getting anybody excited, and above all do not do anything to offend the corporations? Who cares? Are we going to run on a progressive platform of advocating rational policies that will never even come to a vote in the Senate?

What specifically are we going to do? What is the focus? If someone asks a Democrat, why do you want to be President, what is the Democrat going to say?

I can see the debate now. Biden makes the point that Trump is a really bad man. The moderator asks him, does that mean that Biden thinks Trump should be impeached? And Biden says, oh, no, I didn’t mean that. From which the audience draws the implication that Trump isn’t really that bad. And the audience draws the conclusion that Biden is just splitting hairs, probably because he is making a cynical political calculation.

How do we get out of that bind if we dismiss impeachment as a silly idea?

There really isn’t any way to say how bad Trump is without saying that he deserves to be impeached. More than that, Trump needs to be tried for all kinds of crimes that go way beyond impeachment. After Trump is removed from office, he deserves to spend a lot of years in jail.

Yeah, but we aren’t going to impeach him.

If we aren’t going to impeach Trump because we will ultimately fail, we might as well roll over and quit, the way Democrats always do, because nothing else we want to do is going to succeed, either.

I don’t see how we can make a case for getting rid of Trump without being willing to say what we really think about Trump, which is that Trump deserves a lot more than impeachment. But you undercut your case if you don’t find a way to fit the “I” word into your argument. A fog of hair-splitting is not going to defeat Trump.

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