The strange politics of impeachment

Donald Trump in a cabinet meeting at the White House July 16, 2019. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

For too long the Democrats have fretted about how it might look to swing voters if they move to impeach President Donald Trump. Will it turn off suburban women or rural white men? Will playing the victim help Trump win another election by energizing his base?

Maybe so.

But at some point members of Congress have to stop looking over their shoulders and do their job.

That seems to be the conclusion House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally reached this week, when she announced a formal impeachment inquiry based on evidence that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on the family of his political rival, former Vice-President and 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

This is just the latest and most flagrant example of abuse of power by Trump. 

Congressman Mark Pocan
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan

As U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) put it, “These actions are a clear signal to people across the country, the president has violated his oath of office and the time is long overdue for Congress to act on impeachment now.”

For a quick refresher on Trump’s numbingly long list of offenses to date, see David Leonhardt’s “just-the-facts catalog of how Trump has altered the presidency” in the New York Times. In 40 sentences, Leonhardt sums up the awful presidency of Trump.

Here are just the first few items on the list: 

  • He has pressured a foreign leader to interfere in the 2020 American presidential election.
  • He urged a foreign country to intervene in the 2016 presidential election.
  • He divulged classified information to foreign officials.
  • He publicly undermined American intelligence agents while standing next to a hostile foreign autocrat.
  • He hired a national security adviser who he knew had secretly worked as a foreign lobbyist.
  • He encourages foreign leaders to enrich him and his family by staying at his hotels.

And that’s only the beginning.

Impeaching the president is not like bringing criminal charges in court.

John Nichols speaking at a podium
John Nichols (Photo by Joe Mabel CC-sa/2.0)

As John Nichols argues in his book The Genius of Impeachment: the Founders’ Cure for Royalism, rather than a legal process, impeachment is a fundamentally political act designed to rein in a rogue executive.

The question is not whether Congress can find proof beyond a reasonable doubt of Trump’s crimes, but rather, did the president violate his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?”

Using his office to get a foreign government to investigate a political rival, or to enrich himself, is an impeachable offense.

Nichols also separates the House vote to approve articles of impeachment from a Senate vote to remove the president from office. The important issue, he argues, is not whether the president is ultimately removed, but a process that was created to enforce the idea “that presidents were not kings for four years, but rather servants of the people who could be held to account.”

Accountability would surely be a healthy corrective to the off-the-rails presidency of Donald Trump.

Which takes us back to the issue of the politics of impeachment.

For many Democrats, holding Trump accountable doesn’t seem like good politics.

It’s true that Trump seems to thrive on the attention he gets from negative press and political attacks. The 24/7 Trump news cycle is a victory for Trump. He seems to control the narrative, no matter how bad things get.

It’s even possible that he will spin his efforts to get the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden into a bigger political liability for Biden than it is for him. After all, Biden’s son served on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch in a country riddled with corruption. Joe Biden, who travelled frequently to that country as vice president, called for the ouster of an investigator who looked into that oligarch. Never mind that the investigator in question was himself corrupt, and that his ouster was not a Biden family matter but the entire Obama administration’s position.  

Stranger things have happened. Remember Benghazigate? The endless controversy over Obama’s birth certificate? 

Still, the Democrats do themselves no favors by ducking a fight because the trolls on the other side are willing to say anything. 

The proper Congressional response, at this point, is just to set aside politics and confront evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

As 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, even conviction in the Senate is, ultimately, not totally out of the question. Republicans “may not want to go out of their way right now,” she told NBC News, “but I think that vote has to be put in front of them. And look, at the end of the day, everybody will vote, and then they will live with that for the rest of their lives.”

U.S. Sen Elizabeth Warren
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren

There’s a reason Warren has been nipping at Biden’s heels in the polls, and it’s not because she avoids saying anything that might give offense. Voters, including swing-state voters, want plainspoken political leaders who will stand up for them against corruption and self-dealing in Washington. Oddly enough, that’s why some people voted for Trump. Beating Trump in 2020 requires a candidate who will not pull punches, who can credibly represent the interests of people who feel looked down upon and mistreated by elites. It wouldn’t hurt to have a candidate who doesn’t have a family connection to corrupt oil magnates in other countries, either. Just saying.

Meanwhile, it’s time for Congress to use its power to rein in a president who admires foreign dictators, and who acts like one himself.

“It is time to renew the familiarity of the American people not merely with the concept of impeachment,” writes Nichols, “but with its glorious potential to serve as the truest corrective of abuses of constitutional power and the surest weapon in the defense of the Republic.”




Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.


  1. I think part of the problem is that so many Democrats are in thrall to the bizarre notion that Trump is a powerful, popular opponent. He is not.

    He barely squeaked into office on a technicality. His approval ratings have always been in the basement, for the most part being lower than nearly any other president of the last 50 years. He’s made no moves that would gain him approval beyond that of his base, and even his base is showing signs of shakiness.

    Many of those who voted for him in 2016 may have done so because they wanted a new, “outsider” candidate, or because they believed his lies about bringing back working-class jobs, or because his opponent had been politically slandered for more than two decades. None of those variables are likely to be in place in 2020.

    Of course, the Democrats should not be complacent—we see from 2016 where that gets you—but they should not act as if Trump has an imposing basis of power or popularity. He does not.


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