We’re told over and over by fair-weather constitutional scholars that impeachment is a ‘political process.’ Which is to say: it’s not strictly to do with statutes being violated or any narrow legalistic calculation, but rather a wholesale consideration of the power dynamics within the American system of government.
Let’s therefore examine one of the central political arguments presented by advocates of impeachment, namely Nancy Pelosi, whose about-face on the issue this week has ensured several months of all-consuming national melodrama.
Announcing that a formal impeachment inquiry has been initiated, Pelosi declared that Donald Trump had ‘betrayed’ the country. That was the headline which subsequently blared atop the New York Times: PELOSI WILL OPEN FORMAL IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY, ACCUSING PRESIDENT OF ‘BETRAYAL’ OF THE NATION. Pelosi further contends that impeachment is suddenly of such grave necessity because Trump has ‘jeopardized our national security,’ and is ‘disloyal’ to his oath of office. If these rhetorical formulations sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been used before. Ad nauseum. With virtually the same exact wording. In the past several years, Pelosi routinely alleged that Trump has ‘jeopardized national security’ by dint of his attitude toward Putin. So the line now being marshaled with respect to Ukraine is just a continuation of the same political tactic rehearsed again and again over the course of the Russia collusion saga, which ended in failure and humiliation. The central characters may have changed somewhat, but never discount the ability of Democrats to incorporate Russia into their anti-Trump messaging. As Pelosi said Friday, ‘By the way, I think Russia has a hand in this.’ She did not elaborate, but there’s really no need. Just the vague insinuation is enough to give the new impeachment endeavor an extra layer of urgency.
Democrats have clearly lunged toward impeachment with such rapidity because they sense an opening: Trump can now be accused of putting self-interest above country. They might have tried this line of attack before – as did Hillary Clinton in 2016. Let’s step back for a moment, though. Imagine you are a casual news consumer who has picked up snippets of the latest Ukraine developments, but you don’t quite have a handle on what they mean. (You wouldn’t be alone, because professional journalists are clearly struggling to comprehend them). You might agree that Trump is fairly corrupt, but you’re not an inflamed partisan and don’t always assume that the way he’s portrayed in the media is fair, given how incendiary the coverage has been day after day for now years on end. The story really is quite convoluted, despite Democratic claims otherwise – it has a bunch of moving parts that involve a country (Ukraine) about which you know almost nothing. Given this, are you really going to take at face value that Trump has ‘betrayed the nation’ – perhaps the gravest charge one can make about a president? Or might you instead look at the incendiary accusations as just an extension of all the incendiary anti-Trump accusations that came before it? Russia, Mueller, collusion…remember all that? Are Democrats on MSNBC proclaiming that they possess greater ‘patriotism’ than Trump really persuasive to you?
If impeachment is about politics, then the political hostility that has been raging for years — dramatic accusations that never seem to pan out, sweeping predictions of the imminent collapse of the Constitutional order, melodramatic posturing on top of melodramatic posturing – has to weigh against these latest charges being taken seriously. It doesn’t excuse Trump’s sleazy conduct, but Trump’s sleaze has been in full view of the American public for years, and for this particular instance of sleaziness to be taken as justification for something so consequential and historic as impeachment – that’s a very high bar to clear.
It is also worth noting that the ‘whistleblower’ complaint which set all this in motion originated at the CIA, factions of which have been machinating against Trump from the beginning. Of all the potentially impeachable acts that Trump might have committed, it’s telling that the one which gained the most automatic traction and spurred an overnight pro-impeachment consensus came out of the CIA – a fact which would undoubtedly prompt stern contemplations about the role of intelligence agencies in domestic political life if the target had been anyone else. Somehow, all the most dramatic anti-Trump official action seems to solidify the influence of these anonymous security state figures. So if we’re talking about a ‘political process’ vis-a-vis impeachment, that’s one ‘political factor’ that should probably be considered, although you can bet it will be largely ignored.
There’s already a solid political case to be made against Trump. That’s why he’s heading into re-election as a conspicuously weak incumbent. Democratic presidential candidates have a thousand different compelling arguments to make against him. But now the national consciousness gets subsumed into an impeachment frenzy, where the ‘political process’ is not nearly so straightforward and the binary choice of ‘impeach or don’t impeach’ becomes the dominant consideration. ‘Political factors’ that cut against the current prevailing narrative could easily come to bear. New facts could emerge. So there will in fact be a ‘process,’ and the only thing that can be confidently said about it is that it will be painful.