House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a slow convert to impeaching Donald Trump. But she’s finally found religion by announcing on Tuesday that she’ll support an impeachment inquiry based on Trump’s alleged attempt to get the Ukrainian government to fabricate election dirt on Joe Biden:
The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections. Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.
What’s even more surprising, given Pelosi’s foot-dragging, is that she seems to have an expansive view of what needs to be done. Asked if Donald Trump’s decision to release the transcripts of his call with the Ukrainian president will change anything, Pelosi replied: “No. This is about the constitution of the United States. We have many other candidates for impeachable offenses.”
This reference to “many other candidates” hints at the next big decision facing Democrats: Do they use impeachment to hold Trump accountable for his innumerable transgressions—or narrowly focus on the easy-to-grasp Ukrainian scandal?
The extremely clear-cut nature of the Ukrainian scandal is what overcame Pelosi’s skepticism about the political wisdom of impeachment. CNN reports that Pelosi told her caucus “she thinks this issue is understandable for the American public, and they get it.” The Ukrainian scandal has the merit of simplicity, clarity, and urgency: If the allegations hold up, then Trump abused his office in order to use a foreign power to poison the 2020 election. It’s a stark case of a president abusing his power in a way that threatens democracy itself. It’s hard to describe it as anything other than tinpot dictator behavior.
But Trump has done many other acts that violate the basic norms of democracy: He’s profited from the presidency as political supporters and foreign dignitaries poured money into his businesses; he’s obstructed justice, as documented in the Mueller report. And even though the Mueller report didn’t find he’d colluded with Russia in a way that reached the level of a criminal conspiracy, there were arguably still enough improper contacts documented between the Trump campaign and Russia to merit impeachment.
Some Trump opponents want to use the current impeachment moment to go after Trump for his full array of misconduct. As Tom Nichols of the US Naval War College tweeted, “I think the House impeachment articles should list everything from obstruction to the Ukraine call. GOP Sens will then have to either acquit on *everything*, or find him guilty on one of the many things of which he’s guilty. An or up-or-down on 1 or 2 articles won’t do it.” Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout made a similar point, writing: “Articles of impeachment must include the violations of the Emoluments Clauses, two critical anti-corruption clauses of the Constitution. Trump keeps taking substantial money from the Saudi Government…. That’s impeachable.”
The appeal of an expansive impeachment is that it would force the Republicans in the Senate to be accountable for all that Trump has done to date. It would, in theory, be harder for senators to absolve Trump without themselves being implicated in his sleaziness and criminality.
But a truly expansive impeachment—one that included obstruction, Russian collusion, and emoluments as well as the Ukrainian scandal—would also run the risk of getting bogged down in details, with Trump allowed to rehearse his familiar claim of a partisan witch hunt. Partisanship is in fact the only thing that is keeping Trump viable. If Democrats go after Trump with everything but the kitchen sink, the public might well have a harder time remembering the specific facts of the most damaging scandal. Republicans might more easily conclude that the goal is to get Trump on anything the Democrats can find. Further, an expansive impeachment would drag on, with Trump and his allies doing everything to slow down the process.
In contrast, polling maven Nate Silver laid down the rules for a simple impeachment: “1. Be narrow and specific; focus on Ukraine, not other stuff. 2. Don’t overpromise on details unless you can deliver. 3. Emphasize the threats to election integrity. 4. Stay unified. 5. Work quickly & urgently.”
As Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post notes, a narrowly focused impeachment can also be done quickly—since all the evidence needed for a judgment is readily available. “The House Judiciary Committee can take up an article on Trump’s abuse of power in seeking to enlist a foreign power and an article on his refusal to comply with the whistleblower law,” Rubin observes. “It can then send the recommendation to the House floor, where a vote can be promptly taken…. There would be no extended, fruitless court battles; no fight over witnesses’ invocation of fake privileges; and no delay for weeks in setting up yet another committee. The facts in the public record are sufficient; it is up to the administration to provide any information that would exonerate the president.”
A quick impeachment is likely to be followed by the Republican Senate’s deciding Trump should not be removed. There might be a few GOP defections: Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado are the most likely to turn against Trump. Not nearly enough to reach the steep threshold of 67 votes. Still, such an impeachment would have made the essential point: Trump overstepped the rules of democracy.
After a quickly executed impeachment, Democrats can return to other urgent political matters: choosing a presidential nominee and defeating Trump. The impeachment, if done narrowly and in a focused way, will then serve the cause of making the political case against Trump. A lengthy impeachment that looks at all his offenses could have the opposite impact: It might drain the political oxygen out of the presidential nomination process and impede the task of building an anti-Trump majority.
Impeachment is both a legal and a political process. To have a politically effective impeachment, Democrats need to keep it clean, simple—and quick.