The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will impeachment backfire on Democrats? Not if they do it right.

The front page of The Post on Dec. 20, 1998, the day after President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House. (Washington Post Staff/The Washington Post)
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Ron Fournier, a former White House reporter and Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, is president of the strategic communications firm Truscott Rossman based in Detroit.

Late at night on Aug. 15, 1998, a source called me from the White House residence. He wanted me to know that President Bill Clinton had decided to tell a federal grand jury that he had an “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky. After months of denials, Clinton would come clean. “He has crossed the Rubicon,” the source said.

I filed the story for the Associated Press — and watched as the chattering class rushed to misjudgment.

Many expected a cadre of Democratic lawmakers to traipse down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and urge Clinton to resign. After all, that’s how Republicans put Richard Nixon’s presidency out of its misery in 1974, two years after The Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein first exposed White House ties to the Watergate burglary.

But history did not repeat itself in 1998. Clinton turned his looming impeachment into an indictment of the hyperpartisan Republican Congress, Democrats picked up five House seats in the midterm elections, the president was acquitted by the Senate five weeks after the House impeached him, and his approval rating spiked at 73 percent. It was a Republican who took the biggest fall: A few days after the midterm debacle, House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his resignation from Congress.

Harvard University professor Danielle Allen says it is wrong to discuss impeachment as a purely political question, not a legal, moral, or constitutional one. (Video: The Washington Post)

Politicians and pundits are always fighting the last war. The Nixon scandal conditioned people to assume Democrats would torpedo Clinton’s presidency. The Clinton scandal causes Democrats to fear backlash if they impeach President Trump.

Until recently, you could have put me in that camp. When special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report documented Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation into Russian subversion of the 2016 election, my revulsion was matched only by a sick sense of hopelessness.

Trump should be held accountable, but impeachment would backfire on Democrats, right?

Then, in an interview Wednesday with ABC News, Trump said there would be nothing wrong with accepting damaging information about an election opponent from a foreign government. “They have information — I think I’d take it,” the president said, essentially encouraging foreign adversaries to help him win reelection.

This is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent: Unless Democrats and Republicans in Congress impeach Trump, every future president has grounds to ask foreign adversaries to launch covert operations against his or her political rivals in the United States.

But impeachment would backfire on Democrats, right?

Not if they do it right. The more I reflect on the Clinton impeachment, the more I realize he didn’t survive because Republicans overreached. He survived because he made sure his public-facing focus was always on the lives and concerns of voters. He compartmentalized the impeachment drama inside a team of lawyers, pollsters and communications specialists — and had them weaponize the case against him.

Nicknamed the “Masters of Disaster,” this blunt-force team leaked unfavorable information about the GOP investigators. They spun every negative story about Clinton into an argument that Republicans were power-hungry prudes. They even leaked the most damaging evidence against Clinton, funneling it to sympathetic reporters who published their stories late Friday evenings and at other times that minimized impact.

Their mission was to control the impeachment narrative behind the scenes while Clinton and the rest of his White House team persuaded voters that he was working his butt off for them.

Compartmentalize and weaponize. That’s the lesson congressional Democrats should take from 1998.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should form a House select committee that assumes ownership of all Trump investigations. She should hire the best pollsters, lawyers and communicators to help the savviest Democrats investigate and prosecute the case against the president. They could start, and maybe end, with the obstruction case outlined by Mueller.

Like the Senate select committee that investigated Watergate, Pelosi’s posse could go about their business professionally and ruthlessly. Her “Masters of Disaster” could paint a simple and compelling portrait of corruption while the rest of the party, including its presidential candidates, relentlessly focuses on voters’ concerns — passing and promoting legislation aimed at health care, income inequality and reforming the political process. They could shine a harsh light on Trump loyalists in Congress, casting them as power-hungry partisans.

Pelosi can poach Clinton’s strategy because Trump can’t. The president’s narcissism makes him constitutionally unable to focus on anything but himself. He can’t put the people first because he’s always jumping the line.

Trump is better suited for the Gingrich role — a blustery ball of pique and petulance — and is vulnerable to Pelosi’s psych game. Her go-to retort, “I pray for the president of the United States,” is Clinton-level concern trolling.

Heeding the right lessons of 1998, a Trump impeachment would ensure that no future president considers him a proper precedent. While the Senate would almost certainly acquit, history would not.

Read more:

Danielle Allen: Congress needs to stop wasting everyone’s time by stalling over impeachment

George T. Conway III and Neal Katyal: Trump just invited Congress to begin impeachment proceedings

Harry Litman: Can Democrats break the Republican hammerlock on impeachment?

Fred Hiatt: We knew who Trump was but elected him anyway. We can’t impeach him for that.

Marc A. Thiessen: Americans don’t want Congress to impeach, but Democrats aren’t listening