Pelosi - McConnell

7 Paths Forward for Impeachment

Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives would launch a formal impeachment inquiry in response to allegations that President Trump pressured Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden’s son in what appears to be an attempt to influence the 2020 election. Whether Hunter Biden’s behavior was ethically dubious is a fair question (it was) or if President Trump’s actions were an abuse of power (they were) is a discussion for a different day. Yesterday according to most whip counts, the House has the votes to impeach the President of the United States and it looks like they will. So, what might come next?

  1. The House votes to impeach and Majority Leader McConnell refuses to hold a trial in the senate.
    • As of the writing, there are reportedly 221 members of the House who are prepared to vote for impeachment which is a couple votes more than the majority that the constitution requires. The transcript and the whistleblower report don’t look good for the President. In fact, everything looks very bad and probably worse than the Mueller report because these new documents actually make a value judgement about the President’s behavior. We should not be shocked if the House votes to impeach because this is likely as close to a smoking gun that Congress is going to get. This charge is particularly damaging because we already litigated this issue and we already decided that foreign election interference is bad. It would still be a historic move for the House to vote to impeach the President, it’s only happened once every century, but this kind of corruption is historic. But of course, that’s not the end of the impeachment process, the Senate also plays a role and they are meant to hold a trial. If these were normal times then we’d expect it to happen without question, but after Majority Leader McConnell held the Supreme Court hostage in 2016 then we really have no reason to expect McConnell to respect constitutional norms. Although McConnell has said that he will follow Senate rules if impeachment makes its way to the Senate, trusting Mitch McConnell has never been a well-reasoned decision. It’s easy to imagine McConnell just refusing to hold a trial but it’s unclear if that would actually be beneficial to Republicans. President Trump would not be able to claim he had been acquitted because he literally wouldn’t be, he’d just be in some state of impeachment limbo. Furthermore, impeachment is polling a lot better than it was a few weeks ago and the imagery of Republicans refusing to even acknowledge their constitutional duty probably wouldn’t play well with voters. That doesn’t mean it still won’t happen, McConnell has continued to gamble with the constitution, and he continues to win so maybe he can win again.
  2. The House fails to impeach because some moderates change their votes
    • It took around 80 days for the House to decide to launch an impeachment inquiry to actually voting for Impeachment in 1998. If we assume that we’re looking at a similar timeframe for President Trump, then we should expect a vote sometime in December. A lot could happen between now and then and given the chickenshit like nature of some Democrats I don’t have too much confidence in our caucus. I’m especially concerned about the New Democrat Coalition, which is made up of moderates, centrists, and your assorted third-way types. Many of these members come from purple districts and are rightly concerned with their electoral prospects. As a very likely hypothetical, let’s say that by December Elizabeth Warren is leading in the polls in the Democratic primary and is followed by Bernie Sanders while Joe Biden has slipped to a distant third. What is going to go through the minds of members like Sharice Davids of Kansas or Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey or any of the newly elected Orange County Democrats? Many of them have made clear that they’d rather Biden were the nominee. Will they feel like they’ll be able to run as a moderate with a progressive or a leftist at the top of the ticket and vote for impeachment? I think it’s an open question.
  3. The House votes to impeach and the Senate acquits the President without Republican defections
    • Maybe the Democrats will impeach the President. It’s been a long time coming and we’ve probably crossed the Rubicon on impeachment. The evidence against the President is pretty damning and the timeline of events shows a pattern of corruption that is hard to ignore. Well actually it may be very easy to ignore if you’re a Republican senator and live in a perpetual state of fear because of your constituents cult like devotion to the President. Donald Trump has an approval rating among Republicans that is probably in the high 80s which means something. The President in the past has successfully rallied his supporters to oust incumbent members of Congress and there are a number of elected officials who if not for Donald Trump would not be in Washington. Also relevant is that the GOP lacks any ideological mooring and seems to exist solely for promoting the interests of corporations, Christians, and caucasians. This has produced some senators who are genuinely from the Republican base and are not rational actors and may actually believe that the President is acting in good faith. Josh Hawley, Marsha Blackburn, and Cindy Hyde-Smith come to mind but there are certainly others. Then of course there are the so-called “profile in courage” Republicans that liberals love. I’m talking about Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Rob Portman. These are the Republicans who are always “deeply concerned” about the President’s behavior and are “reluctantly” voting for some evil multi-billion-dollar legislation to torture immigrant children. They’ll go on MSNBC, they’ll furrow their brows, and they may even cobble together a joint editorial and send it to the Washington Post. Then they’ll vote not to convict because they are cowards.
  4. The House votes to impeach and the Senate acquits the President with several Republican defections
    • We’ve established that the Democrats are going to impeach the President and that Republicans are cowards. However, this time may actually be different because there are a lot of Senators who are still waiting to go on the record and haven’t instinctively jumped to Trump’s defense. Of course sycophants like Josh Hawley have but his senior counterpart Roy Blunt has not. That’s notable because for several reasons. First, Blunt was only narrowly re-elected in 2016 (underperforming Trump by 15.7 points) and likely would’ve lost if not for Trump’s landslide victory in Missouri. Second, Blunt played an integral role during the 2017 inauguration and commenced the ceremony. Finally, Blunt is the number four Republican on the Senate Leadership team. If anyone was going to defend Trump immediately it was going to be Blunt, yet he’s still “waiting and seeing”. If Blunt is a barometer for other Republicans, then maybe we can expect some Republicans to actually vote for impeachment which isn’t to say that Blunt won’t in the end vote to acquit. There are a lot of Republicans who have made clear their distaste for the President and although the votes to remove him from office likely aren’t there (Joe Manchin and Doug Jones are Democrats who might vote to acquit), we may still be looking at as many as a dozen Republican defections. If I had to guess who might vote to impeach, I’d look at retiring senators and Bush Republicans like Lamar Alexander (retiring), Pat Roberts (retiring), Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Lisa Murkowski.
  5. The President is impeached and removed from office
    • This is the least likely outcome. I would sooner expect an Andrew Yang nomination than a Trump conviction. But it could happen, we may still be missing a piece of the puzzle. Donald Rumsfeld famously said “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. There is almost certainly an unknown unknown out there and it could be one that is so repugnant and disturbing to the conscious of the nation that Republicans will literally have no choice but to impeach. I was tempted to lay out an addendum to this scenario because perhaps the Republicans could convince the President to resign in a similar fashion to what happened to Nixon. But we know Donald Trump and we know in our heart of hearts that he is not going to resign. Unlike other politicians who can be compelled to act by fear or shame or threat to their future in the party, Trump exists outside of conventional norms and he knows it. Trump has captured the racist zeitgeist and will have millions of followers no matter what happens next and that’s enough for him. The only way the President is leaving the White House is through impeachment or at the end of his term, whether that’s 2021 or 2025. There may come a point when Republicans begin to ask themselves, “Is this worth it? Could we achieve the same ends with Mike Pence?” and then the President will be in trouble.

There’s also a number of wild card scenarios that we should be prepared for because the moment we’re in is very fluid and it’s hard to predict anything anymore.

  1. Clarence Thomas resigns or some other Supreme Court Vacancy
    • It’s probably time we stopped pretending that the Supreme Court isn’t partisan. It is. We don’t select justices based on merit, we select them based on reading their rulings, so we understand their judicial philosophy and ideology. There’s a reason that liberal and conservative groups create lists of preferred nominees, it’s because they know where they stand on the issues. The Supreme Court is a broken institution and it can be manipulated for partisan purposes. Enter Clarence Thomas, who has a very conservative world view and witnessed first-hand the kind of mobilizing force a Supreme Court vacancy can have on an election (see 2016 and to a lesser extent 2018). Clarence Thomas has served on the Court for nearly 30 years and hasn’t exactly hidden his conservative leanings, his wife Virginia worked for the Heritage foundation and currently contributes to Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller. He may just decide to announce his resignation at the end of the 2020 SCOTUS term and that would probably be enough for Republicans to circle the horses around President Trump. If the worst should happen, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer (or both) should die, then we’d be faced with a more significant realignment of the Supreme Court that actually would likely mean the realization of many conservative goals like outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage. That would almost certainly mean either impeachment would be completely abandoned by Democrats or Republicans would engage in some historically ugly campaigning.
  2. President Trump Resigns from Office and then continues to run for re-election
    • Donald Trump did not win the Republican nomination because he had institutional support from the party. He won in spite of it because he was what Republican voters wanted, an anti-establishment figure who was willing to be unorthodox and dress down an elite that they loathe. If he needed to, he could probably do it again and if impeachment looks likely then that’d probably be a viable path forward. Would Mike Pence be willing to lead a caretaker government while Trump campaigned for President? He might have to because his choices are pretty limited. Would Pence defeat Trump in a Republican primary? Doubtful because even with the unlimited resources of the RNC, Trump is still Trump (ask Jeb how far $140 million will get you). Does Pence want a future in Republican politics? Probably, and he’s tied his fortunes to Trump and needs to stay in his good graces and for Trump to remain popular. That’s the thing about Faustian bargains, the Devil always gets the better end of the deal. Trump may well reason that he’d have a better chance of staying in power by giving it up. Trump appreciates a good story and the populist president who promised change is stymied by the Washington Establishment and is running an insurgent campaign on behalf of the people…that’s pretty good.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we shouldn’t be surprised if it’s something we don’t expect. I wouldn’t hold my breath for the more outlandish scenarios that involve “President Pelosi” or “Hillary Clinton 3.0” but there’s a lot that could happen in the coming days and weeks. The President probably abused his office and attempted to have a foreign power influence our elections. That’s serious not just for President Trump but for our democracy. It’s time to see the full extent of the Article One powers in the Constitution.