Depending on your perspective, the specter or hope of impeachment has hung over this administration since before Donald Trump took office in January of this year. For many of the President’s critics, it is axiomatic that the ties between the President’s campaign and the Kremlin, and the efforts since the earliest days of the transition by the Trump-Kushner clan to use the presidency to enrich themselves provide more than enough fodder for impeachment. The President’s supporters don’t see it that way, but investigative reporting and the work of special investigator Robert Mueller increasingly suggests that there is a lot more to the story there than excuse making by disgruntled Democrats as the President and his backers have frequently suggested.
Impeachment is complex, takes time and is ultimately a political process. As long as the Republicans control Congress, it is very difficult to imagine Trump being impeached. If the Democrats get a big win in the 2018 midterm election things will change, but even then, impeachment is far from guaranteed. Despite this, the discussion of impeachment will likely continue to dog the President until he leaves office by one exit door or another. There are also two major misunderstanding about impeachment, one is good news for progressives, the other is frightening both for opponents of the President and anybody concerned with the unity and stably to the US.
One common misunderstanding about impeachmentoccurs when progressives warn each other that if Trump gets impeached that means that Vice President Mike Pence, who is more conservative, rational and competent that Donald Trump, would become President, making things even worse. This is partially true, but the political analysis is wrong. If Trump is impeached it is possible that Pence would be impeached as well, meaning Paul Ryan would become President, but even that would not be great for progressives. However, any political scenario that leads to Trump’s impeachment would require a shift in the politics of the country and of congress that Pence, regardless of his ability of political views, would be a caretaker president with no public support and no ability to push through any legislation. This is particularly true because pretty much the only way Trump himself would ever be impeached would be if the Democrats win back control of Congress ins 2018. The congress that impeached Trump would also completely hamstring the hypothetical President Pence.
Despite the fear of a President Pence being somewhat overblown, those hoping for a combination of Mueller indictments and a big Democratic win in 2018 to combine to save us must consider what impeachment would mean for the country. One of the unique characteristics of the Russiagate scandal, which is the most likely series of events that could potentially lead to impeachment, is that none of the news we are hearing now is actually news. While some details are new and Robert Mueller III is doing a great job of connecting the dots, the evidence of Russian meddling in our election with the knowledge of the Trump campaign was present well before the election. In fact, the GOP leadership was briefed about this in fallof 2016.
This is significant because it means that impeachment will not occur because Congress becomes gradually aware of the scandal, but only if a new congress is elected whose leaders decide that the scandal is significant. In other words, impeachment will only happen as part of a political, rather than revelatory or evidentiary, process. Impeachment will, therefore, not bring closure to an ugly and divisive episode in American political life, as Nixon’s resignation did for Watergate. Rather, impeachment will exacerbate that ugliness and division. Donald Trump has made it clear that he will insist the Russia story is fake news until the very end, andhas little concern about the impact that will have on the country-after all, if he cared about what was best for the US, he wouldn’t have worked with the Kremlin during his campaign in his first place, as seems to have been the case. It is also likely that at least some of the Republicans in Congress will also oppose impeachment regardless of how much evidence emerges.
Most significantly, a substantial chunk of the American population will not accept Trump’s impeachment as a just political event, but will see it as something like a left wing coup. They will be encouraged to take this view by the President, Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon and others who for profit or twisted political motives have cultivated this praetorian far right cadre. It is not an overstatement to say that impeachment could easily lead to widespread demonstrations, violence and worse, led by an impeached president seeking more deeply into authoritarianism as he drifts further away from reality.
This scenario is frightening, but it also remains remote because at the end of the day, the Democrats may never have the votes needed to impeach. We will have a better sense of the prospects for impeachment not as Mueller continues to indict those around the President, but after the 2018 election.
Photo: cc/Master Steve Rapport