On Tuesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. This follows revelations about Donald Trump’s discussion with the Ukrainian President in which he allegedly linked continued financial support for Ukraine, an American ally mired in a conflict with Russia that was initiated by Moscow’s aggression, to his request that Ukraine investigate former vice-president Joseph Biden.
We do not know exactly what the fallout of this inquiry will be, but we know some things with a high degree of certainty. There are four things we know about impeachment. First, Donald Trump has committed offenses that exceed any reasonable definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is the standard that the founders laid out in the Constitution. Trump’s offenses fall into four broad categories: the unsavory and perhaps treasonous relationship between the Trump campaign, and presidency, and Russia; the efforts by Donald Trump and his immediate family to use the office of the presidency to enrich themselves; Donald Trump’s efforts to link foreign assistance to an ally with that country agreeing to investigate a domestic political rival of the President; and the numerous violations of campaign finance law and obstruction of justice that the President has committed. Any one of these four offenses would be enough to impeach a President, even if they might all not lead to criminal conviction, but taken collectively they point to a President who is morally unfit for office, who has betrayed his oath of office and who, if he were not president, would be looking at jail time.
Impeaching because of its symbolic value is the precise kind of political softball that all but accelerates the Trump administration’s rollback of American democracy
The second certainty about impeachment is that the investigation will reveal disappointingly little. In recent month we have seen that committee hearings, whether the witness is hostile to Trump, like Michael Cohen, sycophantic towards Trump like Corey Lewandowski, or studiously neutral like Robert Mueller III, reveal very little. Democratic members alternate between asking good questions and grandstanding; Republican members fall over each other to show their fealty to Trump; and the witnesses reveal little that we do not already know from reading documents and articles in the public record. Thus, it is extremely unlikely that impeachment hearings will lead to new information being revealed that will conclusively prove that Trump must be removed from office.
The third thing we know for certain is that if impeachment proceedings begin, the House will through a party line vote, or something very close to that, vote to impeach. Speaker Pelosi would not have called for a formal process to begin unless she knew she had the votes. At this writing, 148 House Democrats are calling for impeachment and will probably vote to impeach. Only 218 votes are needed for impeachment. Even those Democrats who are not yet sure if they are for impeachment will understand how bad it would be for the party if they began this process and did not have the votes. That would be the worst outcome for the Democrats and Pelosi will make sure it does not happen.
The certainty of the House voting to impeach is exceeded by the certainty of the Senate voting to acquit. This is the most important point regarding impeachment. Impeachment will not lead to Trump being removed from office. It will lead to the Senate finding him innocent. To convict after the House impeaches would require every Democratic Senator and fully 20 Republicans to vote for that outcome. At the moment there are exactly zero Republican senators who will vote to convict. That number is unlikely to grow, but even if it does it will not grow to 20. It is essential to recognize that while we can debate the political impact of the Senate acquitting the President, there is no doubt that is where this will lead. To suggest otherwise is a Pollyannaish ignorance of the reality of today’s Republican Party.
If we have learned one thing in the last three years, it is that the Republicans have no shame and that the primary goal of their party is to keep their kleptocratic authoritarian leader in office
There also are many unanswered questions about impeachment, but they mostly fall into two categories. First, some have suggested that there is some symbolic value in the House impeaching the President even if the Senate acquits as it shows that the Democrats still believe in democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law. Advocates of this position also sometimes argue that by doing this, the Democrats will expose the Republicans. There is some symbolic value in the Democrats impeaching the President, but it is just as possible that instead of impeachment being seen as a reflection of Democratic Party allegiance to the Constitution, it will be seen by many as just partisan politics and by many others as another ineffective Democratic tactic. Impeaching because of its symbolic value is the precise kind of political softball that all but accelerates the Trump administration’s rollback of American democracy. The argument that impeachment will shame the Republicans is prima facie nonsensical. If we have learned one thing in the last three years, it is that the Republicans have no shame and that the primary goal of their party is to keep their kleptocratic authoritarian leader in office.
The second and more important question around impeachment is what impact it will have on the 2020 elections. In the House of Representatives, the answer is unclear. It might endanger some Democrats who won narrowly in 2018, but absent any meaningful polling data, we cannot know that for certain. We also do not know how the hearings will play out. If they are a partisan circus, which is likely it might backfire on the Democrats, but also might reveal just how craven the GOP is in their support for Donald Trump. In the Senate the situation is slightly different. A vote for impeachment could easily cost Doug Jones his Senate seat as he has to run for reelection in Alabama, a strongly pro-Trump state. However, Republican incumbents facing tough reelection races, like Susan Collins in Maine or Cory Gardner in Colorado might damage their reelection chances by voting with their party in support of Trump. However, because a two thirds majority is needed to convict, they could vote with the Democrats and Trump would still be easily acquitted.
The biggest political question is what impact a House impeachment and Senate acquittal would have on the presidential election. There is no way to tell, but we know that impeachment proceedings would last well into 2020, and the political impact well beyond that, thus making it very likely that the campaign would not primarily be about climate change, health care, education, guns or any other issues that are good for the Democrats, but about impeachment. That might help the Democrats, but it seems apparent that there is no guarantee of that. In fact, it may be precisely what Trump wants.
Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LincolnMitchell