Republicans might want to think twice before taking comfort in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement that impeaching President Donald Trump is “just not worth it.”
Whatever Pelosi’s view, ongoing congressional investigations are the beginning of a process that will inevitably answer the question of whether the president committed impeachable offenses. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s promise to introduce articles of impeachment by the end of the month is a reminder that the Democratic leadership, regardless of its own calculus, is accountable to a restive caucus emboldened by the resources of billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
The GOP strategy to fight impeachment appears to center on discrediting Trump’s critics rather than defending his conduct. In drawing attention to the past indiscretions and alleged opportunism of Trump critics, from former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to former FBI officials, Republicans are failing to recognize the crux of the matter. It’s not the propriety of Trump’s accusers on trial. It is whether they are providing credible testimony on the alleged crimes and fitness of the president.
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Cohen might not have provided a smoking gun on the Russia collusion question. But he broadcast in front of millions of Americans evidence and allegations that Trump committed an array of crimes and ethical lapses in his campaign finance disclosures, business dealings and cooperation with federal investigations. Cohen’s portrayal of Trump’s win-at-all-costs mindset did little to quell suspicions that the president is putting his personal interests in Russia ahead of the country.
If Republicans cannot offer a coherent defense of the president, or at least a cogent case for why impeachment is an inappropriate remedy for his wrongdoing, they will need to deliver a series of knockout blows against one witness after another who comes forward with damaging evidence. Attacks on the credibility of Trump’s critics might satisfy Republicans — 79 percent do not believe that the president committed a crime in office — but this approach faces longer odds if consistent, incriminating evidence comes from a new slate of witnesses.
Whitewater was no Mueller investigation
Pelosi acknowledged that her view on impeachment would change in the event that new developments provoke “compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan” condemnation of the president. The odds of this are increasing in light of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler’s demand for materials from “81 agencies, entities and individuals” associated with the president. And this is to say nothing of the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller, federal prosecutors in at least three districts and state attorneys general.
In reaching for historical analogies, impeachment skeptics cite the fallout of the Whitewater investigation. Politically divisive probes into the Clintons’ investments in Arkansas, they remind, not only absolved the president but also turned public opinion in his favor when the opposition in Congress overreached.
The trouble with the comparison is that Mueller has already indicted more than twice as many people as were convicted of crimes in Whitewater. And none of those brought down by Whitewater were as senior or as intertwined with President Bill Clinton as national security adviser Michael Flynn, campaign manager Paul Manafort and Cohen were with Trump.
Trump’s resilience to date fuels a belief among his most ardent supporters and critics alike: that a sizable contingent will remain behind the president no matter the extent of his transgressions. This narrative ignores another side of the president’s political position: After Cohen’s public testimony, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that only 24 percent of Americans believe that Trump did not commit crimes before taking office. A Monmouth University poll during the same period showed an increase to 40 percent support for impeachment among independents.
Republicans must stop character assassination
To prevent a premature end to the Trump presidency, the Republican leadership will need to take three steps — and do so while the country is still reluctant to commence impeachment hearings:
►Indicate a genuine commitment to fact-finding and a willingness to sanction the president if investigations so warrant.
►Raise legitimate, principled concerns about prosecutorial overreach for a system based on the rule of law and presumption of innocence.
►Pressure Trump to forgo his re-election bid, which would give the Republicans a reset and reduce Democratic incentives to pursue protracted investigations.
Continuing with a strategy of character assassination will avoid short-term confrontation with Trump, but it will also turn public opinion against him and increase the likelihood of forcing him into the dilemma faced by another scandal-ridden president. When Republicans quickly and unexpectedly turned against him in the summer of 1974, President Richard Nixon had little choice but to fight a losing battle in a Senate trial — or resign with the possibility of a presidential pardon.
Pratik Chougule was the policy coordinator on the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Follow him on Twitter: @pjchougule