Thus far, Republicans have been changing their story almost daily. For a while they said Trump’s phone call — in which he instructed the president of Ukraine to manufacture smears of Joe Biden — was, in the president’s words, perfect. Then Republicans shifted, arguing that the impeachment inquiry was a sham because the full House hadn’t voted on it.
Now that Democrats have announced they’ll hold such a vote, the argument will shift again. Politico reports that Republicans now want to build a “merit-based case to defend Trump,” but what that might be, no one can say.
Democrats, on the other hand, have made a simple argument throughout: Trump should be impeached because he abused his power for his own political gain.
That argument has the benefit of being both true and persuasive. A new survey from Grinnell College asked, without mentioning Trump, whether it’s "okay for political candidates in the U.S. to ask for assistance from a foreign government to help them win an election.” Eighty-one percent said no. Even Republican voters overwhelmingly reject what Trump did.
In the days to come, GOP arguments about both process and substance will sound increasingly absurd. Soon the inquiry will move to public hearings — in which committed, patriotic civil servants lay out the details of this scandal — and they will likely be dramatic and compelling. It will simply not be possible for Republicans to argue that Trump did nothing wrong.
That will leave them with one argument. The one that saved Bill Clinton.
When news organizations reported in January 1998 that Clinton had had an affair with a young White House staffer named Monica Lewinsky, Clinton at first denied it. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he famously said.
What ensued over the next year was a true national conversation about Clinton, Lewinsky, sex and power. And while Democrats attacked independent counsel Ken Starr for his tactics and prurient obsession with the details of the president’s sex life, before long few, if any, of them bothered to argue that Clinton was completely innocent.
Where they ended up was this: Yes, Clinton’s behavior was repugnant. He cheated on his wife and did so with a much younger woman and one who was a subordinate, which is unacceptable. However, that conduct was private in nature and ultimately had little if anything to do with his official duties. Therefore, whatever else you might think of him, he didn’t deserve to be impeached and removed over it.
Democrats arrived at that argument because that’s where the public was. Over the course of that national conversation, a consensus emerged that separated Clinton’s private misbehavior from his public duties. Throughout the process, his approval ratings remained high.
So Republicans are going to find themselves making a similar argument about Trump, for the simple reason that no other argument will remotely plausible. Yes, they’ll say, it was not a good thing for Trump to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to help in his reelection campaign. But was it really that big a deal? Let’s just call it a misdemeanor and move on.
We’ve already seen some Republicans circling around this argument. “The picture coming out of it based on the reporting we’ve seen is, yeah, I would say it’s not a good one,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) last week, adding that it was too early to “come to hard and fast conclusions.” That has the benefit of at least acknowledging reality, while offering a justification to acquit Trump in the Senate.
It’s not a foolproof argument by any means. First, Trump’s misdeeds can’t be dismissed as separate from his duties as president. This impeachment is not about private conduct but about Trump’s abuse of power for political gain.
Second, Trump himself will reject this argument and attack the Republicans who make it. He always claims that everything he did was perfect. He’s too petty and insecure to tolerate even mild criticism from his allies, even if its purpose is to save his skin. So Republicans who defend Trump by saying that his misconduct was too minor to warrant removal will find themselves the target of his wrath.
Which might be fine with many of them: They can say they’re being principled and pragmatic, put just a bit of distance between themselves and the disgraced president, and still support him in the end. It’s not much, but it might be their only choice.