One problem with symbolic politics is that victory can be defeat, and vice versa.
To rephrase that point a little less enigmatically, sometimes politicians do not actually want to achieve their symbolic goals. They want those goals out there, just beyond the horizon, to motivate their voters. Trump’s wall falls into this category. It’s an infeasible and inefficient idea, but it sounded good, so Trump kept repeating it like a mantra. If he had been serious about funding it, he would have used his political capital during the years that the GOP controlled both houses of Congress. He does not actually want the wall, he just wants to be seen as fighting for the wall, and he wants to blame Democrats for not funding it. Trump basically tweeted this out in late December, noting, “we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”
This kind of symbolic politics is not unique to Republicans, however. The Democrats have their programmatic side, but so long as Trump is president, impeachment will be part of the conversation. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) has already filed articles of impeachment against Trump, and I hear that some newly elected members of Congress are enthusiastic about the idea as well.
So far, the Democratic leadership in the House has tried to kick this can down the road. As my Post colleague Brian Fung reported, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said they would have to wait for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said that calls for Trump’s impeachment were a distraction from the Democrats' policy agenda.
It seems increasingly clear, however, that the impeachment question will be faced sooner rather than later. NBC’s Pete Williams and Allan Smith report that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is planning to leave the Justice Department sometime in the next few months but not before Mueller finishes his report: “The source said that would mean Rosenstein would remain until early March. Several legal sources have said they expect the Mueller team to conclude its work by mid-to-late February.”
Meanwhile Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reports that “Rudy Giuliani recently told a friend that he expects Mueller’s report to be ‘horrific,’ a person briefed on the conversation said.” That isn’t that surprising, given that we now know, according to some badly redacted documents, that “Paul Manafort shared 2016 presidential campaign polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate the FBI has said has ties to Russian intelligence, according to a court filing.”
All of this suggests that by the spring, the Mueller report will (a) be a real live document and not just a hypothetical future event and (b) likely contain some pretty damaging information about the Trump campaign. The Manafort revelation alone is, in the words of my colleague James Hohmann, “a huge deal.”
The Mueller report, however, is only one source of pressure. Another is Trump himself. According to Sherman, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has been even less of a check on Trump’s worst impulses than his predecessor, John Kelly. This jibes with reporting by Politico’s Nancy Cook from last month that Mulvaney, “intends to give Trump more leeway to act as he chooses — a recognition that trying to control Trump is a futile approach.” The likelihood of Trump acting more erratically keeps going up,
Meanwhile, speaking of the wall, the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus, Kristina Peterson and Natalie Andrews report that, “As negotiations to end a partial government shutdown broke down Wednesday, White House officials say an increasingly likely option is for President Trump to declare a national emergency over border security and try to use Pentagon funds to pay for construction of a wall or other barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border.” As the New York Times’s Charlie Savage writes, “Of the 58 times presidents have declared emergencies since Congress reformed emergency-powers laws in 1976, none involved funding a policy goal after failing to win congressional approval.” This seems bad for, you know, democracy and the rule of law. Sure, Democrats will try to block this action in the courts, but this kind of abuse of power could also be rectified by — wait for it — impeachment.
Over the next few months, Democratic leaders will face mounting pressure to consider impeaching Trump, and I suspect that Pelosi and her colleagues are pretty ambivalent about it. Absent bipartisan backing, this would result in a House vote of impeachment followed by a Senate refusal to remove Trump from office. It would be another distraction on top of the Trump administration’s endless parade of distractions compensating for a lack of policymaking. If it was viewed as strictly partisan in nature, it would work about as well as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, which did not work well at all.
Democratic leaders likely prefer Trump’s political death by a thousand subpoenas rather than impeachment. Trump is the perfect foil, motivating his opponents more than his supporters. But the symbolic politics of this issue are pretty powerful, and will be difficult to resist.
If the Mueller report and/or Trump’s overreaching of executive branch powers leads to bipartisan outrage, then Democrats face an easier choice. If not, then the symbolic politics of impeachment will pose a challenge. And that challenge is coming sooner than most people realize