Hope springs eternal for #NeverTrumpers. They thought last summer that Trump would implode at any minute via some gaffe to end all gaffes. Then they thought Trump would implode over the winter as Republican voters got serious about the primaries. Then they figured Cruz and Rubio would muscle Trump out of the way in the early going as southern evangelicals, who were supposed to favor doctrinaire conservatives, rejected Trump. Then the goalposts moved yet again, to stopping Trump at the convention this summer. Once he wins the nomination, they’ll move this fall towards supporting a third-party candidate in hopes of sinking his chances. Finally, once he’s elected, we’ll move to the “what about impeachment?” stage. Politico, bless their heart, is already there.
I’m already looking forward to the “we can primary him in 2020!” chatter in 2018.
[T]ravel on the Politico time machine to the summer of 2017: President Trump, survivor of a Republican civil war and Hillary Clinton’s Democratic machine, is making good on his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
He has ordered federal contractors to start building the wall between the United States and Mexico, though neither Mexico nor the U.S. Congress will pay for it. Trump has directed the National Guard to patrol Detroit, Chicago, New York and other neighborhoods with large Muslim populations, and accusations are swirling that he is illegally rounding up suspected Islamic extremists and shipping them off to special detention centers, including the recently reopened Alcatraz Island and to several of the World War II-era internment camps the U.S. government used for Japanese-Americans. Despite the counsel of his foreign policy and military advisers, Trump has commanded the CIA to resume waterboarding and other forms of torture to obtain information about imminent attacks. Inside the intelligence and defense communities, a full-blown internal war has broken out as some interrogators and high-ranking officials follow Trump’s orders, while others refuse to cooperate. Some resign their posts and begin leaking details to the media and Congress. Trump has also ordered airstrikes on the family members of known terrorists from Afghanistan to Libya. CNN airs live coverage of the bombings and protests sweep across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe as the death toll rises for the parents, siblings, spouses and children of ISIL and Al Qaeda fighters. At the United Nations, a resolution is passed, calling for Trump to be tried on war crimes.
Strange but true: In a piece dedicated to the idea of impeaching him, Politico’s actually paying Trump a great compliment here by assuming he’s serious about enacting the splashiest policies he’s proposed. He is serious about the wall, I’m sure, because it’s his signature proposal and he could never back off of it without his fans regarding it as a momentous betrayal. But waterboarding and bombing terrorists’ families, I think, would quietly fall by the wayside once Trump discovered that many of his new employees in the military and IC won’t go along. He’s not going to risk a mutiny that’ll undermine his authority as commander-in-chief, especially since many of his supporters don’t care about waterboarding or killing terrorists’ families per se. What they care about is “toughness” and not fighting by “politically correct” rules. Trump could satisfy that by ordering an aggressive new bombardment campaign against ISIS. All he’d need is a couple of weeks of “U.S. pounds ISIS positions” headlines and he’ll be fine. Having said that, though, the funniest part of Politico’s piece is the idea that waterboarding and targeting jihadis’ families would help drive Trump’s polls down to the point where impeachment becomes politically viable. If anything they’d drive his numbers up among Republicans — “no more politically correct war!” — while driving them down among Democrats. Independents might lean against him, but if you think any of the stuff above would land him in Nixon-circa-Watergate territory in terms of job approval, you’re fantasizing.
Actually, I take it back. The funniest part of Politico’s piece is when they imagine, amid the uproar over President Trump’s harsh new policies, “[Rush] Limbaugh thunders from the right that it’s time to hand the keys to Vice President Jeff Sessions.” Has Politico listened to Rush’s show over the past nine months? Not only wouldn’t Limbaugh be demanding Trump’s impeachment, he’d be one of his biggest cheerleaders. He’s kept all of his campaign promises, Rush would say! The media’s threatening impeachment to get him to bow to political correctness but Trump, like the wall he’s building at the border, simply won’t budge! He’s making America great again whether the left wants him to or not! And it wouldn’t just be Rush: As I say, huge swaths of the right would line up behind Trump, especially in the first year or two of his presidency when he’s still in his honeymoon period. That being so, what are Paul Ryan and the Republican House supposed to do about impeachment? If they impeach him, they face a grassroots boycott in 2018. They’d lose their majority for sure. And many House Republicans would be inclined to defend Trump irrespective of the polls, simply because he’s the new head of the party. That’s one of the strongest arguments against Trump as nominee — as much as the GOP may want to believe that he’d go his way if elected president while they go theirs, it wouldn’t work that way in practice. They’d feel intense partisan pressure to defend his programs, and the ones they wouldn’t defend they also certainly wouldn’t obstruct by threatening to remove him from office. Trumpism, once empowered, would corrupt the entire party. He might commit impeachable offenses, but good luck getting a Republican Congress to do anything about it.
And what if you had a Democratic Congress, or at least a Democratic Senate, as you likely will next year? Would they be any more gung ho to impeach Trump than Republicans would? Politico’s right in noting that much would depend on who Trump’s VP is; they’re not going to oust him if, say, Vice President Palin is waiting in the wings. But that cuts both ways. What if Trump, in order to appease #NeverTrump Republicans at the convention, somehow persuades Ted Cruz or some other dogmatic conservative to join the ticket? You think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would prefer to deal with VP Cruz than with Trump? If anything, precisely because he’s a centrist who’s spoken warmly of liberal policies in the past, Pelosi and Schumer would look to keep Trump in office and use the impeachment threat as leverage over him. “Work with us on the minimum wage,” they’d say, “or we’ll have to take a closer look at those rumors we keep hearing about killing terrorists’ families.” Even if they were inclined to follow through, the lesson of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 was that it carries great political risks for the party that’s attempting it. Unless you’re in a situation a la Watergate where public outrage towards the president is bipartisan, you’re risking a nasty backlash at the polls by trying to topple him. Pelosi and Schumer might well decide that the best way to remove Trump while minimizing the risk of damage to their own party is to take impeachment off the table and try to beat him in 2020. If they make a move to take him out before then and fail, it might end up boosting Trump’s popularity and helping the GOP to retake one or both houses of Congress.
Long story short, the risk of impeachment for policy reasons is very small, and that’s assuming that Trump even intends to follow through on his most controversial ideas, which I doubt. Although if he does intend to, he’d be smart to push them through early, shortly after he’s sworn in. He’ll have a reservoir of public goodwill to buffer him against criticism at that point, and Republicans in Congress will want to show that they’re willing to work with the new president despite their ideological disagreements with him. Plus, getting a bunch of bills passed early will help Trump’s image as a “man of action” who can break through gridlock in a way that Obama never could. All he has to do is figure out how to help the GOP hold onto the Senate this fall. Piece of cake, no?