Is the Impeachment of Donald Trump Really Coming? Republicans Definitely Think So

Republicans’ main midterm strategy is to drive their voters out with impeachment-dread. How will Democrats respond?

On Thursday night in Indiana, President Trump made another one of his "jokes" about extending his presidency beyond eight years. He was talking about how he had wanted to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and was told that might take 10 years.

It's not the first time he has alluded to staying in office past 2024. (It goes without saying, in his world, that he will be re-elected in 2020.) Speaking before a group of GOP donors last March he talked about Chinese president Xi Jinping saying, "He's now president for life. President for life. No, he's great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it's great. Maybe we'll give that a shot someday."

It's always hard to know how to take Trump's "jokes," since he really doesn't have a sense of humor beyond making fun of others. So these little quips feel freighted with more meaning than your average throwaway line. He's not exactly serious, but it reveals his mindset. He may understand that "extending the presidency" isn't in the cards but it's pretty obvious he wishes it were.

Perhaps it's the usual Trumpish upside-down logic at play, since he and the Republicans are actually running on the idea that he may not even finish out his first term if they don't hold their congressional majority in November. He didn't mention that in Indiana, but he's made it clear in earlier rallies:

Last month Jonathan Martin of the New York Times reported that Trump's advisers had finally gotten through to him that the House was in serious jeopardy of falling into Democratic hands in the midterms -- and that impeachment was on the table, which would naturally galvanize him since the only thing that matters to Trump is Trump. But the strategy is really about motivating Republicans who have been showing less enthusiasm for the election throughout the first year of the administration.

The thinking goes that if Trump is threatened the party will rally to save him, because he's much more popular than the GOP leaders in Congress. Midterm elections are always seen as a referendum on the president these days anyway, so Republicans are counting on their rabid Trump base to come out and support their man.

This exhortation from NRA TV makes the point clearly:

Maybe that "extending the term" thing isn't so fanciful after all. And to think the NRA used to carry on about the tree of liberty needing to be watered with the blood of tyrants.

But the problem for the Republicans in November isn't the loyal Trump cavaliers who are ready to die for their king. If they want to win legitimately, they need to persuade reluctant Trump voters who held their noses in 2016 to contemplate two years of impeachment drama and then come out and vote for him all over again rather than go through all that.

The argument that we wouldn't want to distract the nation with an impeachment inquiry rings just a little hollow, however, amid the 24/7 reality show and tweet pageant we're already witnessing. Those reluctant Trump voters know that's not going to change as long as he's in office. If anything, the shift of focus to the Congress might seem like a welcome change of the channel.

NeverTrumper David Frum made an interesting observation in the Atlantic about this strategy, which sounds plausible to me:

To survive, President Trump needs more than Republican votes, more than a Republican hold on one chamber or the other. He needs active Republican complicity in his future efforts to deflect investigations, whatever they may pursue. As his legal situation deteriorates, some Republicans from marginal seats may be tempted to drift away, to let justice take its course — possibly even to say or do something if justice is obstructed. Trump needs all of them bolted down, and the surest way to bolt them down is to force all Congress members to commit themselves early and fully to his protection.

Removal from office requires 67 votes in the Senate — and a broad consensus in the country that the president must go. It cannot effectively be carried out on a party-line basis, as Republicans painfully discovered during the Clinton presidency. By forcing Republicans to disavow impeachment now, Trump narrows the risks of defection later. It’s not just about the midterm results. It’s about press-ganging every last Republican, down to the most reluctant, aboard Trump’s voyage of the damned.

But what of the Democrats in all this? It's true that Rep. Maxine Waters of California, and a few others in the House, are calling for impeachment. That's not surprising. Recall that during the early stages of the Whitewater investigation, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., introduced a resolution directing the House Judiciary Committee "to undertake an inquiry into whether grounds exist to impeach William Jefferson Clinton, the President of the United States." That was months before the Lewinsky affair became public knowledge. But even when the Lewinsky story was all over the media, House Republicans were reluctant to back Barr's resolution. The Washington Post reported in February of 1998:

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) said "I don't think we have the kind of evidentiary basis to be talking about impeachment at this time. I don't really think you should, when it's such an important matter and it's frankly still in the abstract."

"An impeachment proceeding must be bipartisan in the final analysis. ... It can't be seen as a purely political, vindictive, partisan exercise," says House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who opposes Barr's resolution as "premature" until independent counsel Kenneth Starr comes up with hard evidence. "There's no need to leap before we know where we're jumping."

A few months later, Hyde was running the impeachment investigation.

The Democratic leadership is following the same playbook with Trump. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., published an op-ed in the New York Times last weekend that made almost exactly the same points. By all accounts, very few Democratic candidates in the midterms are featuring impeachment as a prominent campaign issue. So far, the only people bringing up the "I word" are Republicans.

Nonetheless, Democrats would be foolish to try to pretend that Donald Trump's metastasizing scandals don't exist at all. They have voters too -- who are motivated and energized in opposition to everything Trump is and everything he does. They've taken to the streets in massive numbers. They've organized grassroots groups all over the country. They've run for office. They've and created and enlarged mass movements around progressive issues. Indeed, they've done everything citizens can do short of revolution to oppose this president. The Democrats will have to respond in some way to this demand that Trump be opposed rather than appeased.

But they don't need to run on impeachment. They can simply address the fact that the Republican leadership in Congress is refusing to exercise its constitutional duty of oversight, and promise that they will hold public hearings and get to the bottom of what happened in 2016. In other words, they should promise to do the job they are signing up for -- and promise to let the chips fall where they may.

Could this scenario take down Trump?

 

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Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.