It is easy to forget now but, nearly 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton was in real danger of being removed from office. He had been accused of lying under oath about an extramarital affair. For that, Republicans decided to impeach him and try to remove him from office. After he narrowly survived that test, it soon became conventional wisdom that the experience had benefited the president as well as the Democratic Party.
If only. Clinton’s impeachment contributed to George W. Bush winning the White House in 2000. As for Clinton, he was able to survive thanks mainly to his abilities and a high-functioning administration supported by an integrated and sophisticated legal and political operation.
During the dark months of 1998 and early 1999, impeachment hovered over those of us who worked for Clinton every minute of every day. It factored into every decision we made. Reporters, fairly or unfairly, put all our words and actions through an impeachment filter. Ignoring it was impossible.
During impeachment, you want to create the appearance that your administration is unaffected by efforts to remove the president from office. But it is mostly a charade. Impeachment owns you, all day long.
After three years in power, is there any indication the Trump White House has the moves, the skills, the instincts to cope with this?
Remember, there was never ever any formal decision-making in what passed for the “normal” part of the Trump presidency. Now that the wartime portion of Donald Trump’s presidency is in full swing, the lack of any established process will prove even more damaging. And that’s especially true as the president begins to layer a $1 billion reelection campaign on top of his impeachment-minded White House.
Nor is there a lot of legal brainpower on call. While impeachment is, at its core, largely a political battle, you cannot win without a sound legal strategy. Trump has nothing like that, beyond the idea of just stonewalling Congress, outlined last week in the letter by White House counsel Pat Cipollone. But he needs one. His lawyers are disappearing: Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in jail late in 2018. Another, Rudolph W. Giuliani, is reportedly now under federal investigation. It is no wonder that there is talk of bringing back Emmet Flood, who helped Trump through the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The president could use a legal grown-up in the West Wing.
It is probably difficult to imagine this, but when you are in the middle of impeachment, most of the White House staff has only the thinnest understanding of the facts of the case. Yes, the lawyers might know the whole story, or large parts of it. But the people who make the presidency work day to day know little more about the real facts of the case than the rest of the country. As Clinton aides, we learned to trust but verify everything we were told. Nothing was ever what it initially appeared to be. We only found out what Clinton was going to say to the grand jury an hour or two before he appeared in August 1998.
As we go deeper into the impeachment process, the interests of the vice president, current and former Cabinet officials, as well as those of Trump’s outside advisers and political allies, will be increasingly at odds with those of the president. We are already seeing these splits becoming public.
All this means that Trump’s control of his own destiny is decreasing. He is entering a world where new facts come out every day, weakening his position. The law of unintended political consequences takes over; the more he tries to control events with a tactical, day-trader approach, the more likely the opposite will occur.
In this environment, Trump is now dependent on others for his political survival. And this is not the environment that a sitting president wants when beginning his reelection campaign.