The impeachment inquiry has left port and now, the turbulent voyage towards a constitutional crisis begins. Over the past two and half years, the question over impeaching Donald Trump has gradually transformed from “Could it possibly happen?” into “How does it actually work?” With the almost-daily new disclosures of improper foreign influence-peddling, including the latest news about Trump asking China for help, and a whistleblower crisis now steadily gathering momentum, this seemingly immovable object of a president has created what may be the irresistible force leading to his downfall.
Once again, Donald Trump has proven he’s his own worst enemy and given the Democrats no choice by forcing their hand. The difference this time is that the president has moved from his usual defense of “I didn’t do it and you can’t prove it” to “So what if I did it?” We have a Commander-in-Chief who feels he’s empowered to use the office for his personal gain with impunity and it’s clear that our system of checks and balances must finally move from stalemate into action. Sadly, one of the great tragedies of an impeachment process is that it only makes the political climate more divisive and tribal, so the chances of getting any significant legislation accomplished during the coming year is somewhere between infinitesimal and zero.
Trump thought releasing the whistleblower report about seeking Ukraine’s help to investigate his opponents was going to quell things, but it’s just made them worse. Nancy Pelosi has to be given credit for holding back until now because if Democrats had tried to impeach Trump over the Mueller report, it would have backfired, as the public didn’t have an appetite for it. But opinion polls now show that the president’s foundation is slipping. In less than a week, Quinnipiac and CNN surveys showed support for impeaching Trump and removing him from office grew from 37 percent of registered voters to 47 percent. While Trump’s 30 percent hardcore base will remain firmly behind him no matter what, there will almost undoubtedly be defections from both Independents and more moderate Republicans. And the fact is that a 40 percent (or lower) approval rating is not going to get Donald Trump re-elected.
What makes this scenario unalike impeachment proceedings with Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton? First, within Nixon’s own administration, there were still people he appointed who had morals. Now, we have a totally complicit Justice Department and State Department and a GOP Congress, with tragically few exceptions, that is completely subservient to the president. The good news is Trump’s own Acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph McGuire, testified in Congress that he considered that the whistleblower had acted in good faith and the office of the Inspector General, led by Steve Linick, released a rare public statement saying that allegations of the president “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election” were both “urgent” and “credible.” Under tremendous pressure, they have both acted honorably.
And just as with Watergate, it’s always the coverup that’s worse than the crime. So how how will Republicans react as more bombshells are revealed? Some of them will reach their tipping point where they have no choice but to withdraw their backing. People should remember that while Nixon had almost unanimous support among Senate Republicans before the Watergate hearings began, once the Smoking Gun tape appeared, it evaporated over a matter of days. While we’d like to believe that patriotism drives a commitment to public service, the harsh truth is that when it comes to partisan politics, self-preservation and staying in power have become the mantra for this GOP Congress, even more than most.
As for comparisons with Bill Clinton’s impeachment, many Republican strategists, such as Newt Gingrich, postulate that the unsuccessful impeachment in 1998 was a disaster for Republicans. While the Democrats did win seats in a midterm election where they would usually lose some, they didn’t gain control of the House. Over the next two elections, Republicans won the presidency, and maintained control of both the House and Senate. Trump clings to the notion that an unsuccessful impeachment process will increase his chances for re-election and while surviving impeachment did help Bill Clinton personally, Donald Trump is no Bill Clinton. We also need to remember that not only was Clinton a master of compartmentalization and staying-on-message, but he set up a war room to do the dirty work, while he was out doing the “people’s business.” This administration is 180 degrees from that. Contrary to popular wisdom, I don’t believe that impeachment is going to hurt the Democrats.
Of course, the wild card in the deck is always Trump himself. The president is starting to get really scared and when he’s cornered, he’s the most dangerous and there are no adults in the room or guardrails at the White House, and few in Congress at this point. For further evidence that the hinges are coming off the doors, look no further than trusted counselor, Rudy Giuliani, who if he weren’t advising the most powerful person on the planet, would be considered an unbalanced buffoon.
The next few weeks, are going to be crucial because as the facts that come out, Democrats need to be focused and disciplined. They must frame this crisis as a national security issue and repeat that line over and over again, just like they did with healthcare and pre-existing conditions in the midterms. They know this administration is a master of obfuscation. Just look at how William Barr managed to spin the Mueller Report as inconclusive and an exoneration. But by beginning an impeachment inquiry, this gives Democrats more gravity to get the president’s tax returns and the testimony of insiders such as Don McGahn, because this is now an issue of national security and the president has actually admitted to impeachable offenses. Up to this point, when it came to releasing key documents and resisting testimony by former and current administration officials, the White House has managed to stonewall and thwart almost every Congressional investigation. But in this higher stakes poker game, the president’s bluff is about to be called and sooner or later, executive privilege will not be the trump suit.
The impeachment process is a defining test of our democratic system of government and the principle that no man is above the law. However, this journey to the truth has already been hijacked by a captain whom even when faced with disaster, will likely refuse to abandon ship and will have no qualms taking us all down with him.
So batten down the hatches, America, rough seas ahead.