We are currently half-way through the first four-year term of President Trump. Almost from the beginning there have been calls for impeachment, and the polls show that some 40 percent of our citizens support this extreme measure. This is, of course, a partisan preference, with more than three-quarters of Democrats in support and most Republicans against, but such polls should not be surprising given that the more generalized polls consistently show that between 50 and 60 percent of us disapprove of the job the President is doing.
My own beliefs apparently put me in a relatively small minority. I am one of the roughly 20+ percent of Democrats who do not support impeachment of the president. I am also among that even smaller percentage of citizens who strongly disapprove of the job our President is doing but who do not want to see him impeached. Therefore, in the interest of clarification and perhaps of expanding the number of those who agree with me, I will try to explain how I come to this comparatively unpopular set of preferences.
Start by looking at some of the arguments that have been forwarded in favor of impeachment, in one extended sentence: (1) Donald Trump’s campaign conspired illegally (“colluded”) with a foreign government to win the presidency, (2) his campaign and administration has often sided with Russian goals even when they conflict with long-standing U.S. policies and treaties (“treason”), (3) he has filled most high posts in the government with ideologues who are strongly opposed to the primary legal missions of the agencies they lead, (4) he has repeatedly reversed his negotiated and clearly stated agreements with Congressional leaders and with his own cabinet members, sowing chaos and mistrust and, now, forcing a shutdown of the government, (5) his poorly-planned tariffs and other trade policies have caused economic distress across our country, (6) he has frequently taken actions and made statements clearly intended to obstruct justice and impede the progress of the Mueller investigation, (7) he has advanced many proposals that most legal experts have said are clearly unconstitutional, and (8) he personally has profited enormously from his position as presidnet, profits that include violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution. This is probably not a complete list, but it is enough to see that we do not really have to wait for the conclusion of the Mueller investigation to demonstrate significant evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. Anyone vaguely familiar with the real news of the past two years (for example, not relying on Fox News) already knows much of this.
President Trump himself has weighed in on this, of course, several times claiming that “you cannot impeach someone who is doing a great job.” He is wrong there. Congress has demonstrated that it can impeach any president for virtually any reason. But even if you assume his statement is true, it is hard to see how it applies to Trump himself (cf. the paragraph above and his approval ratings). Trump also has said, ad nauseam, “There was no collusion.” That may be partially irrelevant (again, the paragraph above), but it is also not a proven statement of fact.
That brings us to the commentators, many of them members of the U.S. Congress, who have said we should not consider impeachment, at least until the Mueller investigation has been completed. These are generally people who likely would favor impeachment, but who want to have justification, perhaps even a legal basis “beyond a reasonable doubt”, for that decision. I understand this argument. It is similar to the argument that says impeachment is largely a political action, a step we should not undertake unless a significant percentage of the U.S. public (and, in response, their representatives in Congress) believe that it is necessary. This is a reasonable position, one that is strengthened if we compare the threatened impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. The action against Nixon had significant bipartisan public support, which meant that even the president knew it would succeed. He resigned. The vote to impeach Clinton, on the other hand, was a one-sided GOP effort without bipartisan public support. As a result, the Senate failed to follow through to remove Clinton (in effect, the process failed) and the Republican Party suffered a sharp decline in popularity.
Evidence of serious malfeasance may yet come from the Mueller probe or from the new investigations which will be conducted by the House of Representatives under Democratic control. When this happens, public approval for impeachment could rise to include almost all Democrats and a majority of Republicans. If that happens, should we go ahead with impeachment? The answer is still no. There are several reasons for avoiding the impeachment process even if we believe it has strong public support and would be successful in removing President Trump.
One major reason for not removing President Trump is that it is bad political strategy. If we were a parliamentary system and could call for a vote of no confidence in the entire administration, that could be a meaningful solution. In our system, however, getting rid of Trump means the installation of President Pence. So impeachment would replace Trump with a more consistent and dogmatic conservative. Pence would not only continue to do everything Trump has been doing in forwarding the modern conservative agenda, but he would likely do more, in a more consistent fashion, and also would have the power to pardon ex-president Trump. Remember President Ford and Nixon? If you believe that Donald Trump should face some penalties for his many crimes, you probably don’t want Pence to be promoted. Add to that the advantage that President Pence would likely have in the 2020 election, in which Republicans could expand the charges they already made in the 2018 mid-terms. In that election they excited their base by complaining that Democrats were planning a coup to reverse their 2016 loss to Trump. In 2020 they could repeat those accusations with added effect if Trump has actually been removed.
President Trump has only two years remaining. If we assume that an impeachment could be accomplished in the next six months, the questions we should be asking ourselves are:
1) How much more damage can Trump do if we leave him in office for the final year and a half of his term (and would Pence’s efforts be any different)? He has already put in place the administrative leadership, and altered the regulatory system, in ways that will reverse much of the progress our country has made in the past seven decades toward civil rights, environmental protection, consumer protection, and any number of other positive goals. His ability to further expand his efforts now will be countered by Democratic control of the House of Representatives, so impeachment may not significantly change future executive policies.
2) What will Trump do if he is seriously threatened with impeachment and removal? He has shown himself to be remarkably thin-skinned and willing to over-react in ways that ignore the law. Will impeachment proceedings cause him to attempt even more dangerous responses, perhaps even inspire a “wag the dog” military incursion? He has already talked about declaring a “national emergency” to bypass Congress. What will he try to do under such a declaration if he is threatened?
3) How much of a distraction will the impeachment process create? Democrats in the House will soon begin investigations of the Trump administration and pass legislation that, even if it is rejected by the GOP-controlled Senate, will demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Trump agenda and the Republican obeisance to him. Yes, Congressional Democrats can do all of these things simultaneously, but their legislative efforts will be more effective and be seen as more principled if they aren’t simultaneously “attacking the president”.
4) Would a Trump impeachment serve as an effective warning to keep future presidents from committing “high crimes and misdemeanors”? President Nixon was forced out by the threat of imminent impeachment, but that example did not stop President Reagan from involvement in the seriously illegal Iran/Contra conspiracy. Similarly, the Nixon and Clinton impeachment efforts did not keep the second President Bush from such unconstitutional actions as torture and suspension of habeas corpus. It is doubtful that even a successful Trump impeachment would be any more effective.
If we answer all four of these questions honestly, it will indicate, at this time, that Congress should not initiate impeachment proceedings against President Trump. The only possible exception might occur if the final report of the Mueller investigation and Trump’s response to it are so damning that nobody in Congress can ignore it (as with Nixon). That may force a rapid impeachment. Short of that, Democrats should simply let Trump finish his single term in office and be satisfied with the Democratic presidency that should follow, all the while supporting the current and continuing legal prosecutions of Trump and his family and associates. That should be a more satisfying and positive strategy than forcing his immediate removal from office.