Proponents of impeachment come from three blocs: progressive pundits who have no idea what it takes to win office; occupants of safe seats in gerrymandered Democratic districts; and the Justin Amash wing of the Republican Party, population: one.
They make a very reasonable moral argument that people who transgress the law should be held accountable. However, Congress is not a seminar in moral philosophy, nor has Donald Trump ever shown any interest in the subject. Congress is a political institution, and the political argument in favor of impeachment boils down to a scene from the classic film “Animal House.”
“This situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” says the suave and cynical Otter. To which earnest Bluto replies: “And we’re just the guys to do it!”
Morality is much too important to be left to the righteous. They have a tendency to turn it into crusades, jihads, purges and cults. Instead, society’s moral tenor is best maintained by pragmatists who know enough not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
In this case, the perfect outcome for Democrats would be the chastisement of Trump, the cleansing of the White House and the humiliation of complicit Republicans. The good outcome: winning in 2020. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her team are the pragmatists struggling to avoid a fatal collision.
Having heeded Robert S. Mueller III’s advice to read the special counsel’s report (or to have key staff members read it), Pelosi and company understand all of its parts. In Volume I, investigators documented efforts by the Russian government, including computer hacking by the Russian military, intended to undermine the United States by exacerbating internal conflict. However, the investigation did not find that Trump’s campaign conspired with this effort.
In Volume II, the Mueller team traced a series of largely unsuccessful attempts by Trump to undermine and even obstruct the investigation. Because Justice Department policy holds that a sitting president cannot be charged with a federal crime, the team never decided whether these attempts added up to a crime.
Thus the question is whether to impeach Trump for trying (but mostly failing) to interfere with an investigation of a non-conspiracy. What’s the high crime here? Buffoonery?
The speaker is making the political judgment that this is not a winner for her party. Say what you wish about Nancy Pelosi. She is the daughter of a successful machine politician. She learned vote-counting at her daddy’s knee. As an adult, she engineered her own machine in an entirely different city on the other side of the continent. She scrapped her way upward and for more than 15 years has reigned as the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history.
She knows a thing or two about politics.
Meanwhile, who is goading the Democrats to impeach with every trick and prod in his arsenal of provocation? Trump. His outrageous tweets and flamboyant defiance of Congress are designed to turn the next six months into all-out war in which Democrats hound him into the Senate to stand trial — and he prevails. (It’s nuts to think that Democrats could not only rally all of their 47 senators to convict but also pick up the 20 Republicans needed to reach the required two-thirds.)
Claiming exoneration, he can go to the voters as an unbowed victim of, to borrow from one formerly impeached president, the politics of personal destruction.
This is Trump’s best option. He’s heading into his reelection campaign minus the trade deal with China that he promised; minus the big infrastructure program that he promised; minus the Mideast peace that he promised; minus the big, beautiful wall that he promised; minus the money from Mexico that he promised; minus the good, clean government that he promised; minus the balanced budget that he promised; minus the revived coal industry that he promised.
To win, he needs a villain to blame for these unfulfilled promises, and he is casting impeachment-mad Democrats for the role. Surely, by now, even his most righteous opponents can see that Trump is a master of this game.
In listening to Mueller’s sober, straightforward statement reviewing his actions and his report, the pro-impeachment crowd took heart from his allusion to constitutional means for holding the president accountable. But are they forgetting the most obvious one?
You know: winning a majority of the electoral votes.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.