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8 reasons why impeaching Donald Trump is a risk

  • Published at 12:06 am September 27th, 2019
US president Donald Trump
Photo: AFP

And 3 reasons why it’s not

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that the Democrats have begun a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump over allegations that he tried to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate a Democratic political rival.

And now the transcript of the phone call has been released, Democrats have said the evidence was even more incriminating than they expected. 

Impeaching Trump is still fraught with risk for the Democrats. Taking down a sitting president is the equivalent of the nuclear option in American politics.

Whether successful or not -- and most impeachments are not -- the fallout will be deep and enduring.

Here are eight risks for the Democrats:

1. It won’t succeed

Before we get into the details of Trump’s alleged crime, ponder how likely it is impeachment would fail -- even if his misdeeds are true. 

There are enough Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote for his impeachment. Only a bare majority is needed to initiate impeachment proceedings and there are 225 Democrats in the 435-seat House. 

But there are not enough Democrats in the Senate to find him guilty there. Even allowing for some Republicans joining them, Trump is likely to have the maths on his side.

2. Immunity by profusion

Trump commits so many small transgressions that no big one ever sticks to him. He has become adept at dodging criminal charges and simultaneously claiming they are part of a Democratic witch-hunt. 

The huge investment of time and energy that was the Mueller investigation failed to turn up a crime that Pelosi was confident would pass constitutional muster. 

The Ukrainian episode may indeed mark a tipping point, but no former transgression has thus far led to impeachment.

3. This is not (yet) an obviously impeachable offense

This is what constitutes an impeachable offence, according to the US Constitution: 

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors (Article II, section 4). 

Trump’s lawyers will challenge every effort to paint his “diplomacy” with Ukraine’s leader as reaching the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” 

4. It will remake Trump

If the Democrats’ impeachment effort leads to an acquittal in the Senate, the outcome for Pelosi’s party won’t be a weakened president but, most perversely, an emboldened one. 

When the Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton in 1998, he was subsequently found not guilty in the Senate. His last two years in office, despite the shame of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, were among his most impressive. It would also be for Trump.

5. Think Brexit

The UK is presently convulsed because, fundamentally, the democratic will of a majority of voters is being denied by a political establishment that did not like how they voted. 

The transposition of this to the US is not hard to imagine: If the Washington political elite successfully removes from office a legitimately elected US president, it will catalyze an already polarized nation into something approaching cultural war.

6. Democrats need to get their own electoral strategy in order

Instead of waging an impeachment battle, the Democrats should address the issues that gave rise to Trump in the first place. 

He is a symptom, not the cause, of a cultural disaffection of mostly white, blue-collar Americans who have felt themselves abandoned by the Democrats. 

7. Impeachment is not popular

There is not yet a strong consensus in the country that impeachment is the right thing to do. This may change now that Americans have been presented with the transcript of what Trump’s Ukrainian machinations consisted of.

8. Trump loves a street fight

He prospers by the enemies he can goad. And he will continue to enjoy the benefits of the US presidency even as the impeachment net closes around him. He will set the agenda and play the victim. He is a master at this. 

And here are three reasons why the Democrats should pursue impeachment.

1. It is the right thing to do morally

In the phone call, Trump seemed to blur a line between the national interest and his own electoral advantage. Asking a foreign leader for dirt on his political rival might be deserving of censure and possibly impeachment.

2. Legally, the rule of law demands it

Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, made this point back in April:

Even if we did not win, possibly, if there were not impeachment, I think history would smile upon us for standing up for the Constitution.

3. It makes sense politically

Even if Trump is not removed by impeachment, the process will mire Trump for the rest of his term. He will not be able to pursue policies Democrats have long regarded as anathema.

As an electoral strategy, therefore, impeachment may be of some benefit for Democrats. By November 2020, voters may be so tired of the whole affair they will vote for a change. 

Timothy J Lynch is Associate Professor in American Politics, University of Melbourne. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation UK, and been reprinted under special arrangement.