If you believe Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump is about to “self-impeach.” Any minute now. It’s coming—just you wait and see.
Unfortunately, for people not enamored with our fearless leader or for fans of accountability in political leadership, this is not a new claim of Ms. Pelosi’s. Back in summer of 2017, amid sagging presidential approval ratings, Pelosi demurred on the subject of Democrats starting impeachment proceedings, predicting he would self-impeach. Again in May of this year, she said virtually the same thing, indicating her belief that Trump is “becoming self-impeachable in terms of some of the things he’s doing.”
We’re in August 2019, more than two years after those earlier remarks by the Speaker and with an election fast approaching. And wouldn’t you know it—the president has yet to impeach himself. Maybe because he can’t. Because self-impeachment isn’t a thing.
At the federal level, impeachment can only be brought about with the assent of the House of Representatives and the official in question can only be tried by the Senate. These provisions are contained in Article I, Section 2 and Article I, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, respectively. As for what charges may be grounds for impeachment, Article II, Section 4 states that the “President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In practice, however, lawmakers voting to begin impeachment proceedings have more commonly done so because of that official’s abuse of his or her position or for violating the public trust.
Article II, Section 2 also prohibits the president from granting pardons or reprieves for offenses against the U.S. in cases of impeachment, meaning Trump presumably couldn’t simply pardon himself. Still, the idea he could self-impeach is, to use a bit of highly technical political jargon, hogwash. And yet, members of the media continue to amplify Pelosi’s claim or at least don’t challenge it like they can or frankly should.
One of the latest such defenses of House Democrats’ inaction on this front comes from Julian Zelizer, CNN political analyst and Princeton University historian. As Zelizer argues, Pelosi “might have been onto something” when she made her comments about self-impeachment in May, evidenced by more than half of House Dems supporting starting impeachment proceedings, including House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler. While acknowledging that the very notion of self-impeachment is “silly,” Zelizer nonetheless bolsters the idea of a self-impeaching Trump by pointing to all the irresponsible, reprehensible and stupid shit the president says.
Like, for instance, suggesting the Clintons had Jeffrey Epstein killed. Or for going after “The Squad” and Elijah Cummings, telling them to go back to the crime-ridden, rat-infested places they came from. Or for calling immigrants and asylum-seekers coming across our southern border “invaders.” It is primarily Trump’s wayward public conduct and speech which keeps Democrats from putting the impeachment option aside, even more so than the contents of the Mueller report.
Thus, while Speaker Pelosi is a long way away from committing to impeachment proceedings, and while the process will all but surely come to die in the Senate as long as Mitch “I’m in the Personnel Business” McConnell is toeing the party line, Trump is serving as “his own worst enemy” by keeping the conversation alive. Not to mention he may be doing his re-election prospects a disservice by, you know, being a jerk.
Here’s the thing, though, Mr. Zelizer: you already acknowledged the silliness of the theoretical concept of self-impeachment. Why feed the narrative? Why not compel Pelosi and Co. to take decisive action on a matter that has a majority of House Democrats in agreement, a number which has grown steadily over the past few weeks and months?
Zelizer cites the “very real fears” about a backlash in moderate districts which formally bringing impeachment proceedings against Trump could create. To say there isn’t risk for staying this more cautious course or for pinning the party’s hopes on 2020, meanwhile, would be inaccurate. Those same Democratic representatives representing so-called “swing” or “purple” districts might share Pelosi’s sense of apprehension and refuse to commit to voting in favor of impeachment, which would never get her to the desired threshold for unanimous approval (whether that is by design is another story, but let’s the give her the benefit of the doubt for argument’s sake).
As for the looming presidential election, polling would seem to dictate Trump losing to most Democratic candidates, though we’ve been down this road before. Hillary Clinton was widely predicted by the political intelligentsia to carry the day in 2016. As we all know, she didn’t. This time around, Joe Biden is the leader in most polls and the presumptive “safe” establishment pick. He’s also an old white male in an era when a rapidly-changing electorate is increasingly dissatisfied with how it is (or isn’t) represented in Washington, D.C., his record as a legislator is not above reproach by any means, and he seemingly makes some sort of mind-numbing gaffe every other day.
This is the man who will motivate younger voters to want to get involved? This is the guy who inspires confidence that he has learned from past mistakes and is fit not only to take on the incumbent, but run the country should he win the whole shebang? Pardon me if I don’t feel so secure thinking about the prospects of a heads-up showdown between Trump and Biden for America’s future.
Politicians regularly deflect, distract, and evade to try to limit their sense of personal responsibility. At this point, it’s to be expected, and Ms. Pelosi is not above playing the game, so to speak, as an entrenched D.C. insider. For someone like Zelizer, a member of the free press, on the other hand, not taking her to task in lieu of laying into our man-child president is arguably a dereliction of duty. We get enough talking points as it is. Getting them merely re-hashed when serious critical commentary is needed does the news purveyors and their consumers both a disservice.
In stark contrast to the hemming and hawing of Democratic leadership and the concession to the “dangers” of impeachment by much of today’s punditry, Steve Phillips, author, civil rights lawyer, organizer, and political leader, for one, declares emphatically that “it’s safe to impeach Trump.”
Why is Phillips so sure on this point when the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Julian Zelizer are more equivocal on the subject? As Phillips explains, he has the math on his side.
Democrats, he finds, are inordinately concerned with the re-election prospects of representatives in contested districts. One representative cited within his piece says he believes “we have pay to close attention to what’s going on in the 30 or so swing districts, what are those people thinking.” The idea is that in these locales, Trump-backing Republicans balking at impeachment proceedings or talk thereof could sway the final results.
As Phillips points out, though, this number is inaccurate from the jump. Only 21 seats won by Dems last year came from districts Donald Trump carried in 2016, a minority of those flipped blue. From there, seven districts in which Democratic voter turnout was lower in 2018 than in 2016, won on the strength of turnout alone, can be removed from the discussion. Phillips highlights how significantly more Hillary Clinton voters came out in 2018 than did Trump voters “more satisfied with the political status quo now that they had their preferred person in the White House.” If registered Republicans were responsible in large part for flipping those districts, you would expect votes for Democratic congressional candidates to be higher, not lower given the unusually robust turnout for midterm elections.
Of those remaining 14 districts, Phillips removes another six congressional districts on the basis of wins unrelated to turnout. In other words, even if you took away of all the increase in turnout and gave it to Republicans, the Democratic candidate still would’ve been victorious on the strength of returning Hillary voters. Down to eight districts, Phillips then strikes three more of our original 21-count, underscoring unique circumstances by which factors other than “disaffected” GOP voters were decisive.
In GA-06, Stacey Abrams’ historic gubernatorial campaign likely fueled Lucy McBath’s slender victory (fewer than 5,000 votes) by driving people to the polls. In NM-02, Xochitl Torres Small’s similarly thin margin of victory can probably be best attributed to demographics (New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district is 55% Hispanic/Latino) as well as that the seat was open with the incumbent opting not to run for re-election. Finally, in UT-04, Ben McAdams yet more narrowly (less than 1,000 votes difference) upended black Republican and frequent Barack Obama critic Mia Love. Among the reasons why, Phillips considers the waning importance of being a black Obama detractor, McAdams’s name recognition and popularity, and the idea that, well, a white Mormon male would tend to fare better electorally than a black woman in Utah anyway. That’s the ol’ Beehive State for you.
That leaves five districts—MI-08 (Elissa Slotkin), NY-22 (Anthony Brindisi), OK-05 (Kendra Horn), SC-01 (Joe Cunningham), and VA-07 (Abigail Spanberger)—in which disaffected Republicans decided the outcome of the last election. While not necessarily to minimize these lawmakers’ potential contributions, numerically speaking, the electoral prospects of five moderate Democrats does not seem sufficient to outweigh the desire of many Americans and a rising tide of Democratic lawmakers to see party leadership move forward on impeachment.
All this before we get to the too-eerie parallels between Nixonian impropriety and what Trump has said and done and continues to do and say to apparently try to get himself impeached. This is to say that even without relying on Phillips’s figures, historical precedent might also compel Pelosi and other high-ranking Democrats to act.
In all, Phillips avers that “doing the right thing” is the right course of action not merely because it is a moral imperative, but because voters have signified through their turnout that they favor holding the president accountable, notably those registered Republican defectors from swing districts. As he puts it, they want Congress to hold this man accountable.
Which, to bring us full circle, requires the House to impeach. For Nancy Pelosi’s repeated references to self-impeachment, Trump can’t (and wouldn’t, anyway) do that. He also has yet to self-destruct and only grows bolder with the passing days and weeks, unchecked in any meaningful way and therefore incentivized to continue to lie, enrich himself, and espouse yet uglier views as the leader of the country. As the aftermath of the El Paso shooting demonstrates, Trump clearly isn’t getting better or more presidential. November 2020, no guarantee to be a boon for Democrats, shouldn’t be the Dems’ only option in standing up to him.