The degree to which this is on his mind first became evident in a tweet the president fired off Friday morning:
Let’s set aside the accuracy of the string of claims that Trump makes about his achievements and his innocence. The fact is, there is no definition in the U.S. Constitution of what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is what the framers set forward as grounds for impeachment. High crimes and misdemeanors are whatever Congress deems them to be.
Nor is presidential performance any insulation against impeachment. A president who is doing a good job can still be impeached. In fact, one was, fairly recently.
Throughout the saga that led to Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment, there was a deep disconnect in public opinion about him. Americans didn’t think Clinton honest or trustworthy. But they thought he was doing a fine job as president. The week that the Republican-led House voted two articles of impeachment against him (charging him with lying under oath and obstructing justice) his job approval as measured by the Gallup Organization reached 73 percent — the highest point of his presidency.
After the House impeached Clinton, he was acquitted by the Senate, where votes fell well short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction. In the meantime, the House Republicans who had rushed headlong toward impeachment had been punished by voters in the 1998 midterms, where they lost five seats. That was the reason then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had pushed the impeachment strategy, was forced to resign.
Staying focused on his job — everyone called it “compartmentalization” back then — was Clinton’s survival strategy, and it saved him, which is something Trump might want to consider now. Americans' warm feelings about Clinton’s performance continued: He left office with a job approval of 66 percent, the highest final number Gallup had recorded for any chief executive since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
By way of comparison, Trump’s numbers are abysmal and have been throughout his presidency. Gallup finds Trump still underwater with approval sitting under 40 percent and disapproval in the mid-50s.
A few years back, I asked Gingrich what he thought about the whole thing, in retrospect. He told me that his own daughters had tried to talk him out of impeaching Clinton. “There’s nothing that massive employment growth doesn’t help you with,” Gingrich said. “My daughters explained that to me in 1998: ‘We don’t want to do anything that messes up our 401(k)s. Don’t pick a fight. This economy is really good.’ ”
That is probably something Democrats should be thinking about now as well. We still don’t know what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is going to come up with, which is why more senior House Democrats, from newly installed Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on down, are trying to tamp down impeachment talk. Most of them lived through the last impeachment drive and saw the consequences, both for the institutions of government and for the party that rushed into it. The framers gave Congress broad leeway to determine what constitutes an impeachable offense. But they trusted lawmakers to have the judgment to know that this power should be used sparingly.