WASHINGTON—Only twice in America’s 232 years under the Constitution has the nation’s president been impeached by the House of Representatives—Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998—but neither man was convicted by the Senate or removed from office.
Johnson and Clinton were Democrats who were impeached by Republican-led lower chambers. But they were also saved from removal by Republican-led Senates, thus illustrating, as Publius warned in Federalist 65, that impeachments are intrinsically partisan affairs. Even so, partisanship is no guarantee of ultimate outcomes.
The dangerous reality facing the Speaker and her party are the multiple “what ifs” that could make impeaching Trump the worst thing that can happen for Pelosi and the Democrats, perhaps even catastrophic for their long-term electoral prospects.
- What if, for example, Pelosi’s Democrats are mistaken in gambling that, after Trump is impeached, the majority of the U.S. electorate will reward them with full control of both chambers of Congress and the White House in the 2020 election.
The conventional wisdom has indeed long held that Republicans barely kept their control of the House in the 1998 congressional elections because they overreached with impeachment, as seen in the fact that the opposition party traditionally does extremely well in the sixth year of a presidency.
The reality today is that the clear majorities of Americans in key congressional districts opposing impeaching Trump could mean the same negative impact will befall the Pelosi Democrats in 2020, a contest that otherwise could be a prime opportunity for their party. And the timing couldn’t be worse for the Democrats, with the White House and Congress at stake; Republicans lost those congressional seats in an off-year election at which, if history is any guide, they should have picked up seats.
Pelosi’s Democrats, however, can look to President Richard Nixon’s resignation after it became clear he would lose an impending impeachment vote in the House on a bipartisan basis.
Nixon’s resignation was followed by 1974’s “Watergate election” that swept massive Democratic majorities into Congress and set the stage for President Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976. Remember, too, that Republicans, who lost in 1998—the election following immediately after the initiation of Bill Clinton’s impeachment—then won big in 2000.
The problem for everybody involved in a Trump impeachment is nobody can know with assurance what effect it will have electorally because there are so many more “what ifs” that could, to a greater or lesser degree, shape the final outcome in 2020.
- What if Trump takes advantage of Senate rules to turn the impeachment trial in the upper chamber into no-holds-barred investigations, with brutal cross-examinations of witnesses such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama?
Here’s why that could happen: First, Trump is a street fighter unlike anybody in the Oval Office since Andrew Jackson, and, if he doesn’t already know about Senate rules for the trial, the instant he learns about them, he will act accordingly. “Draining the swamp” could take on a whole new meaning.
Assuming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) approves, Trump’s defense lawyers for the trial will have wide latitude to call witnesses and subpoena documents. That could lead to devastating blows damaging Democrats for years to come, which possibility they would be foolhardy not to ponder seriously, given Trump’s love of political fisticuffs.
This was true even before the viral “Suddfluffel” circular, which recommends an impeachment trial become a cross-examination of Democrats, began making the rounds again on Facebook. Notwithstanding that pseudonymous author’s obvious bias in favor of Trump, he or she is certainly right about Senate rules. They are the exclusive province of the Senate majority, including the standards of evidence to be applied in determining the admissibility of evidence.
Even Snopes, which clearly is at least as biased against Trump as Suddfluffel is for the president, acknowledged that it can’t “say definitively what the president’s lawyers might be allowed to do.”
- And here’s a related “what if” that Democrats would be well-advised to consider carefully: Trump is the final arbiter of what remains classified and what is declassified.
The president has been saying for months that he is declassifying “everything” regarding the Russia hoax. He could do the same thing with regard to former Vice President Joe Biden’s dealings with China, and with Ukraine, and regarding his son, Hunter.
Trump can also declassify documents on as-yet-unexamined aspects of Hillary Clinton’s years as secretary of state, and Obama’s whereabouts during the Benghazi crisis, and what Obama knew and when on official surveillance of Trump. Each of these possibilities opens up countless additional “what ifs” with consequences nobody can know.
Put otherwise, everybody would be well-advised to heed John Jay’s observation in Federalist 64 in a discussion of Senate powers that has a particular application to the present controversy:
“They who have turned their attention to the affairs of men, must have perceived that there are tides in them; tides very irregular in their duration, strength, and direction, and seldom found to run twice exactly in the same manner or measure.”
Contact Mark Tapscott at email@example.com