The only winner to emerge from impeachment proceedings would be Donald Trump
If the Democrats wish to reclaim the presidency, they should set their sights on the 2020 election
The political confrontation in Washington that became inevitable when Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives last year is fully underway. And Democrats are grappling with whether to launch an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
There are formidable arguments on both sides.
Many younger, more liberal Democrats passionately want impeachment.
Increasingly, so do many House Judiciary Committee members, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who are frustrated by Mr Trump’s stonewalling of Congress’ constitutionally mandated oversight.
They have a powerful case.
From obstruction of justice to foreign emoluments, and abuses of power to illicit campaign hush money bribes for alleged mistresses, the potential articles of impeachment against Mr Trump are an embarrassment of riches.
An impeachment inquiry would consolidate disparate investigations and, since impeachment is indisputably a key congressional function, decisively invalidate Mr Trump's spurious legal claims that Congress lacks a legitimate legislative purpose in seeking information.
Mr Trump is stonewalling to buy time, and an impeachment inquiry would make thwarting that quicker and cleaner.
Finally, these Democrats insist that impeachment hearings, and especially a Senate trial, would allow many Americans to finally grasp the scope of Mr Trump's misconduct and, at a minimum, eliminate any prospect of his re-election.
However, most Democratic leaders, guided by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, still think formal impeachment hearings and, especially, a Senate trial, could prove the president's best bet for political survival.
As a formal inquiry concludes, Democrats, needing only a simple majority in the House, could certainly pass an impeachment resolution. But there’s almost no chance of a conviction in the subsequent trial in the Republican-controlled Senate. So Mr Trump would probably be acquitted, remain in office and claim a massive victory.
He is a creature of television and views his presidency as a programme, not unlike TV wrestling, consisting of daily episodes in which he battles and defeats some opponent. Democrats should worry that a failed impeachment trial would produce the juiciest season thus far of his presidential Apprentice show.
A Senate impeachment trial could cast Mr Trump in exactly the role he wants: the aggrieved Republican champion of white, Christian Americans besieged by immigrant hordes backed by an intolerant and arrogant liberal Democratic elite.
Ms Pelosi argues that this is why he’s trying to provoke Democrats into impeaching him.
A Senate impeachment trial could cast Mr Trump in exactly the role he wants
The Democrats’ successful midterm campaign was based mainly on quality-of-life issues, such as healthcare, not hatred of Mr Trump. Ms Pelosi maintains that’s also the best way to defeat him in 2020.
Her faction also believes that a series of separate committee investigations can eventually uncover much of the same information as an impeachment inquiry, without giving Mr Trump the narrative he craves, and they cite several recent court victories as evidence. Even Mr Nadler conceded that these rulings weaken his case for impeachment hearings.
Ms Pelosi appears to have a real knack for getting under Mr Trump’s skin. She is the one opponent he has faced since he entered the 2016 Republican primaries who consistently gets the better of him, politically and emotionally.
Last Wednesday she goaded the President into a petulant tantrum by telling reporters that he is “engaged in a cover-up”. An enraged Mr Trump then burst into a scheduled infrastructure meeting, demanded Democrats end their “phony investigations”, and stormed out within three minutes.
He went directly to a pre-arranged Rose Garden rant, vowing never to work with Democrats as long as any oversight investigations continue.
Ms Pelosi replied, “I pray for the President,” noted that cover-ups can be impeachable offences, and urged a family or staff “intervention” for “the good of the country”.
Mr Trump responded by staging a disturbing ad hoc ritual in which his senior aides were required to testify to his preternatural serenity and, in effect, sanity. He then called Ms Pelosi “crazy,” insisted “she’s lost it,” and tweeted a video that was crudely doctored to make her appear drunk or senile.
Obviously, Mr Trump doesn’t yearn for impeachment. But he might prefer a spectacular, historic Senate trial – especially since he’s almost guaranteed an acquittal – to more of this grinding war of attrition, in which Ms Pelosi is making him look increasingly erratic, both despite, and because of, his insistence that he’s a “very stable genius”.
Mr Trump’s refusal to negotiate potential compromises on infrastructure, immigration or healthcare is regrettable. But it relieves Democrats of any soul-searching about what could be accomplished through co-operation, rather than confrontation.
The normative option would be for Congress to continue its investigations and oversight, while simultaneously seeking compromises with the White House where possible. But that has been foreclosed by Mr Trump.
That leaves Democrats with a simple choice: unite much of their oversight work in a formal impeachment inquiry or continue with multiple and ostensibly separate tracks.
Ms Pelosi, who has unquestionably been winning the war of nerves with Mr Trump, has repeatedly demonstrated she understands and knows how to defeat him. Her warnings that he would welcome an impeachment battle are well worth heeding.
For now, at least, Democrats should focus on the 2020 election and tenaciously pursue oversight but avoid invoking impeachment.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: May 26, 2019 03:34 PM