Yet this very coherence could—and under present conditions likely will—undo itself. Right now Trump is fighting on many fronts to suppress many investigations of many different forms of alleged wrongdoing. He must plug more holes in the dike than he has fingers. But submerge all those many stories into one big question—“remove or don’t”—and the impeachers will have to focus their energy on the most salient allegations. The battlefront will narrow, and as it narrows, the unity of the executive branch will confer a tactical advantage on even a weak presidential defense over the fissiparous offense in the House of Representatives.
Impeachment at this point is all but certain to end in Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, which is controlled by a Republican majority. The votes of two-thirds of the senators who are present are required to remove a president from office, and 67 is a number not within the present political reality. That may change, but it won’t change for reasons internal to the impeachment process. It will change only if new real-world facts materialize—either legal facts (evidence of other crimes) or political facts (a collapse in Trump’s support in the country).
A Trump facing impeachment will rally reluctant Republicans to him, with the argument, so effective for Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Even if he did something wrong, it does not merit removal from office.
And an acquitted Trump will be an immunized Trump. Is it vexing to hear Trump’s team misrepresent Robert Mueller’s report as an “exoneration”? Imagine what they will say and do if they defeat impeachment on a party-line Senate vote. It was all fake news, a plot by the Deep State. As false and wrong as those claims will be, how will Democrats sustain the momentum to hold Trump to account after a trial and acquittal? Won’t they then have to submit to the jeers of Trump henchpersons: This issue was litigated, and it’s time to move on?
Impeachment now threatens to turn the 2020 election into a referendum on the Democrats’ methods in Congress, not Trump’s wrongdoing in the presidency, in the campaign, and in private life.
Trump accountability is not an all-or-nothing choice. It’s not now or never. The House can investigate every Trump misdeed, exposing to the light of day everything from allegations of money laundering and bank fraud to the abuse of undocumented-immigrant laborers at Trump-owned properties. It can investigate the Trump-Russia file, not as a case of criminal conspiracy, but as a national-security threat. It can fight the battle for proper Trump financial disclosure in the courts—and summon the national-security professionals who were overruled by Trump when they denied Jared Kushner a security clearance to testify before committees.
By focusing on many different issues at once rather than the singular issue of impeachment, Democrats have the chance to do three things:
- They focus on the discovery of facts rather than arguments over consequences: “What wrongs did Trump do?” rather than “Is removal the right remedy for these wrongs?”
- They liberate their presidential candidates to campaign on the bread-and-butter issues that will mobilize and motivate less-committed voters, rather than obliging them to opine on the big existential question of impeachment and removal.
- They reserve the impeachment remedy for the very genuine possibility of a Trump second term, by which time the Senate will likely have shifted more in the Democrats’ direction.
Trump outrages the sense of justice. It is understandable that many yearn for urgent and decisive action to cleanse the American system. But wise action is better than urgent action, and the best decision is one that leads to success.