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The strategic case for impeaching President Trump

Welcome to some zero-sum game theory.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) meets with reporters Sept. 12 just after the House Judiciary Committee approved guidelines for impeachment hearings on President Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The facts are dribbling out about President Trump’s efforts to seek official foreign assistance to take actions that would harm his domestic political rivals. Those facts are rather appalling, but as the New York Times’s David Leonhardt notes, it is really just one more data point to add to a mountain of information that “[Trump] is the president of the United States, and he is a threat to virtually everything that the United States should stand for.”

After 2½ years, the message is pretty clear; the Trump presidency is not good for the United States. The question is what to do about it.

For all of 2019, House Democrats have been wrestling with the question of impeachment. Even as more and more House Democrats sign on to the idea, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not. Both sides have valid arguments. Pelosi thinks that impeachment needs to be a bipartisan process, and without GOP support impeachment is a hollow threat that would harm Democrats in 2020. Other House Democrats think that if there is compelling evidence of the president of the United States accepting foreign emoluments, obstructing justice and abusing his power, those high crimes and misdemeanors merit impeachment.

For most of 2019, Pelosi had put the brakes on impeachment. The Ukraine business seems to have tipped the scales, however. Over the weekend, my Washington Post colleagues Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Rachael Bade reported that Democratic members of the House believe their reticence to move forward on impeachment emboldened Trump to act egregiously: “The push by Trump and his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to influence the newly elected Ukrainian leader reveals a president convinced of his own invincibility — apparently willing and even eager to wield the vast powers of the United States to taint a political foe and confident that no one could hold him back.”

In response, more House Democrats — including the more moderate freshman class — are pivoting toward the view that something needs to be done. As the New York Times’s Nicholas Frandos, Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman report:

In public and in private, many Democrats said the evidence that has emerged in recent days indicating that Mr. Trump pushed the Ukrainian government to investigate Mr. Biden, and his administration’s stonewalling of attempts by Congress to learn more, were changing their calculations about whether to charge him with articles of impeachment.
The influential chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who has resisted such action, said the House might now have “crossed the Rubicon” in light of the new disclosures, and the administration’s withholding of a related whistle-blower complaint. A group of moderate freshman lawmakers who had been opposed to an impeachment inquiry said they were considering changing course, while other Democrats who had reluctantly supported one amplified their calls. Progressives, meanwhile, sharpened their criticisms of the party’s leadership for failing to act.
The fast-moving developments prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi to level a warning of her own to the White House: Turn over the secret whistle-blower complaint by Thursday, or face a serious escalation from Congress.

The problem is that Pelosi’s risk-averse political calculus at the start of 2019 has not necessarily changed. Very few Senate Republicans beyond Mitt Romney have said anything about the recent revelations. It is entirely possible that impeachment will be viewed as simply an exercise in partisan politics.

What to do? Zero-sum game theory offers some useful advice.

In zero-sum games, one actor’s gain is always the other actor’s loss. The optimal strategy to pursue in this instance is called “minimax.” A minimax strategy anticipates that the other actor will adopt the most punishing strategy possible — and, in response to that strategy, takes the course of action that minimizes the damage.

What does this have to do with Trump and the Democrats in Congress? It is safe to assume that Trump will continue to abuse the powers of the presidency as long as he is in office. The Ukraine example shows that he is not above using presidential authority for partisan gain. Furthermore, when he is not doing those things, he is pursuing other policies that harm the U.S. economy and the national interest.

Would impeachment stop any of that? No, not directly. What it would do, however, is distract the heck out of him. To say that Trump can be easily distracted would be an understatement — his short attention span occupies a healthy portion of the #ToddlerinChief thread. Sharpiegate exemplified how Trump obsessed about a small thing so much that it became a more scandalous thing.

As Matthew Dallek noted recently in The Post, one of the reasons Trump is such a micromanager is because the weightier aspects of the job overwhelm him: “Where his predecessors sometimes knew so much that they got obsessed with the details, Trump knows so little that microscopic concerns seem almost to be ends in and of themselves.”

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)

So why impeach Trump? Because he will obsess about it. The moment it becomes a live option, the moment a trial in the Senate seems conceivable, he will talk about nothing else. He will rant to his staff and bore foreign leaders about it. He loves a fight. And every moment Trump thinks about impeachment is a moment he is not thinking about doing even more reckless things, like trying to compromise the independence of the Fed, or launching a larger trade war, or stumbling into a real war.

Let me be very clear: I am suggesting that the House impeach Trump for two reasons: 1. He has committed high crimes and misdemeanors; and 2. Impeachment will distract Trump from further harming the national interest.

This is not a perfect strategy. It will sap the energy of the executive branch, something Alexander Hamilton would dislike. There are some small risks to Democrats in 2020, although an impeachment trial would also highlight Trump’s egregious abuses of power. It is possible that if impeachment happens and then the Senate fails to convict, Trump will feel emboldened.

Still, Trump is not going to stop doing what he is doing, unless he gets distracted by something else. In a zero-sum world, it is far better to have him obsess about his political survival rather than, say, nuking a hurricane. In the zero-sum political world that Trump has made, impeaching him is the best possible response strategy to his abuses of power.