Here we are — but where are we? Your semi-useful user's guide to the impeachment of Donald Trump

Nancy Pelosi hearts "CIA Democrats"! Mitch McConnell cares about no one! And other notes on 2019's coming hit show

Published September 29, 2019 12:25PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)
Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi (Getty Images/AP Photo/Salon)

This is why I'm glad I'm not Nancy Pelosi. Well, one of many reasons. Now that we're done castigating her for all the condescension, normalization and foot-dragging of the last three years, and have moved on to declare her the Avenging Queen of the Republic, maybe we can acknowledge that the truth is more mundane: She's a political leader, trying to navigate an ambiguous task she didn't particularly want.

That’s where we are with impeachment: Nobody knows where we are, and the future is murky. Will President Trump be impeached by the House, sometime between now and the Iowa caucuses in February? That seems likely, although there are certainly off-ramps available for Democrats if they choose them. Will the impeachment cover just the Ukraine scandal, which almost everyone will agree is only the tip of an immense and slimy iceberg, or a whole range of likely Trumpian crimes? That remains to be seen!

If the House passes articles of impeachment, will the Senate even hold a trial? That seems to be mandated by the Constitution, but if there’s even a hypothetically legal end-around, I can assure you Mitch McConnell will get his snout right in there and root around in it. If such a trial occurs, will Trump be convicted and removed from office? That would require 67 votes, so the conventional wisdom that it can’t and won’t happen — as, indeed, it never has — is inescapable. One can imagine several Republican senators voting to convict, which would be a profound stain on Trump’s presidency. (More on that below.) But 20 Republican votes is pretty nearly inconceivable.

But let me admit here and now that I never believed Trump would be impeached at all, and have said so repeatedly. But as the late, great Northern California baseball announcer Lon Simmons used to say, if you show up at the ballpark every day and pay attention, you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. So also in politics. So in full humility and a spirit of curiosity, here is my perhaps useful, perhaps entertaining and likely-to-be-wrong guide to the long-awaited (and/or long-dreaded) drama “The Impeachment of Donald Trump.” It’s either a sequel to Shakespeare’s “Richard III” or to “Lambada: The Forbidden Dance.” We just can’t be positive which.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: Trapped in a world she never made

When a nation’s politics have gone bad to this extent you can safely say this about everyone involved, but Nancy Pelosi has now been caught in a trap of her own making. She had clearly decided that impeachment was way too big a risk — to the newly-built Democratic majority, to her own legacy, to the theoretical possibility of legislative accomplishment — and was oh so close to running out the clock into the holiday season and the 2020 presidential campaign, when impeachment would have become a dead letter.

All three components of her reluctance were important, although the third is ridiculous and the first unknowable. Yes, it’s possible that impeachment could come back to bite the moderate “frontliners,” meaning first-term Democrats who narrowly won previously Republican seats last year. But it’s just as likely it will benefit Democrats next year, incumbent or otherwise, and anyone who claims to know otherwise for certain is full of it. 

But Pelosi is unquestionably worried about her legacy. She has more or less promised to step down as speaker after the 2022 midterms, if the Democrats can hold the majority that long, and does not want the entry about her in future history textbooks to explain that, well, she was the first woman to hold that job and then she won a remarkable comeback victory after eight years in the wilderness and then she threw it all away in a pointless snipe-hunt of the Goodest, Greatest President Ever. 

I suspect those fears have heightened Pelosi’s natural tendencies toward caution and calculation, and she’s now feeling the blowback. She’s stuck with an impeachment process she never wanted, and since it can’t be avoided she wants to rush through the whole thing as fast as possible, focusing largely or perhaps exclusively on the Ukraine mess and consigning Trump’s innumerable other crimes to the marginalia of history. Honestly, that strikes me as very nearly the worst of all possible worlds, maybe worse than doing nothing at all. But what the hell do I know? Pelosi is an expert tactician, and as we'll see below, I think it's possible to game out her thinking here. She knows how to get under Trump’s skin, and however this drama ends, I’m confident she’ll succeed in doing that.

President Donald J. Trump: Victim of endless PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT

It doesn’t pay to probe too deeply into Donald Trump’s so-called psychology; Nietzsche’s maxim about staring too long into the abyss comes to mind. But I have no convincing counter to the conventional wisdom which holds that Trump was grossly overconfident about the Ukraine scandal and has been taken off guard by the reaction.

Since Trump has no understanding of ethical norms and no moral compass, he is guided entirely by the reactions of others. He had gotten away clean with everything in the Mueller report — as he perceived it, not unreasonably — and had surrounded himself with sycophants who constantly told him he was all-powerful and could rule forever. Trump’s intriguing thesis that Article II of the Constitution confers “the right to do whatever I want as president,” for instance, sounds like a third-rate misreading of George W. Bush-era constitutional law, as relayed by Rudy Giuliani. (I haven’t given that clownish homunculus his own listing in the dramatis personae, by the way, but he’s an important supporting character in a dark register. Is Rudy wreaking revenge on all of us over his failed 2008 presidential campaign?)

Trump released the truncated transcript of his phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, and then the whistleblower complaint that laid out the whole Ukraine conspiracy in considerable detail, because he genuinely didn’t think he had done anything “wrong” — that is, anything different than he’s done throughout his career in politics and business. He’s pretty much right about that, honestly. One of Trump’s more coherent lines of defense, if you want to call it that, is: Why this, and why now? 

With Corey Lewandowski reportedly returning to the White House fold as an impeachment war-room czar or whatever, I expect to hear a lot more of that argument: WTF is so special about this penny-ante extortion attempt of the no-name president of some ass-bite country that zero percent of Americans could find on a map with infinite guesses? That’s just Trump Trumpin’ on people, you dumbasses! (Do you like my Corey impression? I kinda do.) That’s another reason why focusing solely on Ukraine feels like the path of weakness: If the White House responds that this is nothing special and impeachment is just Democrats grasping a convenient political opportunity … I mean, where’s the lie?

House Democrats: Squad vs. CIA!

Because Americans are politically immature, we don’t talk openly enough about the amount of factional division within the political parties. (In Britain, for instance, it’s commonplace to talk about the “hard left,” “soft left,” “center-left” and “center-right,” all within the Labour Party, and without insulting anybody.) Republicans are in a special purgatory of their own design these days, but within the Democratic majority in the House there’s a lot more going than just “the Squad,” the leadership and 200-odd unidentified “Democrats.” 

To borrow the British terms, the hard left and soft left in the House — somewhere around 80 or 90 members in all — have wanted impeachment since the get-go, whether they were yelling about it at parties, à la Rashida Tlaib, or not. The moderates or centrists began to drift over to that position after the Mueller report, but felt constrained by a lack of public support and the obvious clampdown coming from Pelosi and the leadership. Ideologically, Pelosi herself fits on the center-right of the Democratic Party, a fact often misunderstood because she comes from San Francisco and is strong on women's rights and LGBT issues and all that. She’s a hardcore national-security hawk, an opponent of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and generally suspicious of progressive economic reforms or intervention in financial markets.

Both strategically and politically, Pelosi is closely aligned with the aforementioned “frontliners,” and especially with the hawkish “CIA Democrats,” former military or intelligence officers who comprise a striking proportion of the freshman class in Congress. (To name a few: Jason Crow of Colorado; Elissa Slotkin of Michigan; Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey; Max Rose of New York; Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania; Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.) Pelosi believes that holding their seats is crucial to retaining control in 2020, and they represent a version of Democratic politics she understands and identifies with, whereas Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other “progressives” absolutely do not.

I believe there's no way to understand what happens in Congress without understanding that, and I believe that Pelosi's bromance with this cadre of center-right, national-security Democratic freshmen is a central plot point in the Ukraine impeachment drama. Pelosi wouldn’t move before they did, and they’re on board now specifically because Trump blatantly violated the norms of U.S. foreign policy by leaning on the president of a former Soviet republic (where the U.S. supported the, shall we say, highly controversial overthrow of an elected government in 2014) that is now seen as a crucial strategic ally in the new Cold War against Putin and Russia. If that makes you feel just a bit queasy about the whole enterprise — well, it probably should.

That’s the answer to my imaginary Corey Lewandowski question: Why this, and why now? It’s also why Pelosi wants to limit the scope of investigation and push the whole thing through as quickly as possible and could also, if we game things out a bit further, be why the whole project goes bad. (Brief truism: The more spooks are involved, the worse things get.)

Senate Republicans: Pawns in the great game

If Donald Trump is incapable of advanced game theory, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decidedly is not. On the surface, McConnell’s play seems simple, and probably brutal. If the House passes articles of impeachment, he either A) refuses to hold a trial and drags things out into the 2020 campaign season and everyone gives up, or B) holds a trial that lasts no more than a week and pushes to an up-or-down floor vote, which surely ends with far fewer than 67 votes to convict Trump.

Those are likely outcomes. But bear in mind that Mitch views Donald Trump with the same reptilian contempt as he views the rest of the human race. Mitch has his eyes on the prize, that being his own power and a continued Republican majority in the Senate, and everything he does must be understood in that light. He himself is up for re-election next year — but then again, that’s in Kentucky, where he is widely despised but also seen as a massive dispensary of power, privilege and money. 

In the unlikely event that GOP base voters abandon Trump in large numbers, McConnell would happily swap Trump for President Mike Pence and never look back. I can’t really imagine that happening, but I can imagine McConnell permitting a damaging trial to play out that ends with five or eight or 10 Republican senators voting to convict. Trump would survive, but with his wings clipped and his presidency tarnished; the capo di tutti capi would have reminded him who was boss.

A side advantage of that scenario? It would allow embattled Republicans facing tough 2020 races — most notably Susan Collins in Maine, Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado — to declare their independence from Trumpism, and perhaps fend off the doom that otherwise awaits them. Realistically, McConnell needs to save one of those three seats to be sure of holding a majority in 2021 (and Gardner, who won a squeaker during the mini-Republican wave election of 2014 and will face popular ex-governor John Hickenlooper, is probably done for). 

Of course Mitch would greatly prefer a Republican president, but don’t confuse that with any loyalty to this particular one, who has become a serious management problem. McConnell won’t allow Trump to be forced from office, unless and until he becomes convinced that’s the smart medium-term play. But if he decides Trump is going down in 2020 and can’t be saved, McConnell will be among the first to announce that he didn’t really know the guy and always thought he was a shady character.

Fox News (& friends): Torn between two lovers

Cracks have been visible beneath the façade of the Republican Party’s house network since well before Trump’s election: The late Roger Ailes was a committed anti-Trumper at first, and backed Ted Cruz nearly all the way to the 2016 convention. Since then, of course, the Kool-Aid has been widely dispensed: Alarmist morning segments on “Fox & Friends” have reliably resulted in presidential tweets, and Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson might as well be Cabinet members.

But Trump’s rising tide of complaints about unfriendly Fox News commentaries or the network’s relentlessly downbeat poll results reflect a notable shift. Prime-time stars like Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham have a symbiotic relationship with Trump — they feed him outlandish racist conspiracy theories, and he drives their numbers — and that’s not going away anytime soon. But sober-sided news anchors like Chris Wallace, Shep Smith and the semi-retired Brit Hume are exactly the kind of “mainstream conservatives” shaped by the Reagan and Bush eras who feel deeply troubled by the DIY foreign policy of the Ukraine intervention.

Let’s give Nancy Pelosi some credit for the tactical brilliance I mentioned earlier, although it comes within a very narrow compass. She has studied the right for years and is now trying to drive a wedge between the Trumpian America-Firsters and the old-line neocons, who have gotten much of what they wanted but have never liked or trusted the guy. In that sense, she’s exploiting the ouster of John Bolton, which was a major blow to the endless-war fanboys who thought they were finally gaining some traction in the White House. (I guess we now think Bolton wasn’t the whistleblower, which would have been a delicious plot twist.)

Pelosi is challenging the so-called principled conservatives to go all Ides of March on the corrupt and power-mad boss or be revealed as total hypocrites, which is why you hear murmurs of disapproval from senators like Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney, both of whom are clearly starting to imagine a Republican rebuilding project after November 2020. The short version here is that Fox News and other arenas of right-wing discourse will be must-see TV during the impeachment drama. Not that much will come of it — there’s no honorable exit for the Republicans who’ve ridden the Trump train this far.

Tribes of the Red Hat: Lost in America

Well, the New York Times will do approximately 86 feature stories about people sitting in woebegone diners in East Crap Ranch County, drinking coffee the color of swamp water and complaining about the Democrats they see on TV. Trump’s rally audiences will be the biggest ever seen in the history of humanity, according to him, and will no doubt be plenty fired up. I don’t particularly want to say this, but we all know it's true: There will be acts of violence clearly linked to Trump’s supporters or inspired by his rhetoric, about which Republicans will express bafflement and call for prayer.

Not to go all David Brooks on you, but impeachment is only going to harden the alienation felt by Trump voters from coastal, cosmopolitan America, as well as their entirely correct perception that they are constantly being sneered at, condescended to, belittled and cheated. Which is only likely to drive them further into deeply psychotic modes of protest. Let’s not pretend that’s a good thing.

I certainly agree that on a national scale Democrats should stop obsessing about chasing tiny handfuls of repentant Trump voters and focus on mobilizing and expanding turnout. Non-voters are way more important to America's future than bunker-hardened working-class Republicans. But no remotely healthy democracy can afford to write off tens of millions of its citizens because they have been historicized, brainwashed or berated into holding all sorts of benighted and backward views. We know how that story ends, and it isn’t pretty.

In the short term, will Trump’s support in the polls tick up or down because of impeachment? Well, it depends how things go, and, seriously, who gives a shit? It strikes me that the love and hate are both baked into the pie at this point, and it won’t make much difference. Will this be an ugly and unpleasant spectacle, fueled by contempt on both sides? Yes it will.

Tribes of the Resistance: You can't always get what you want

Given that this story will not end with our president impeached, convicted, removed from office and confined to federal prison — indeed, the over-under for how many of those things will happen is between zero and one — there’s no way those who yearn for a satisfying catharsis will get one. Both the strength and the weakness of the anti-Trump “resistance” is the fact that it has temporarily (and only superficially) united groups and individuals with dramatically different agendas: Rachel Maddow-style “Deep State” superfans, “New Democrat” Clintonistas, NeverTrump Republicans, civil libertarians, #MeToo Women’s Marchers, democratic socialists and so on. 

There’s already considerable disagreement over the apparent Pelosi strategy of jamming through a one-count impeachment over the Ukraine scandal while allowing the rest of Trump’s clear-cut corruption and likely criminality to just ride along as an invisible codicil. Beneath that, there has never been any agreement about whether impeachment is: A) a serious effort to remove Trump from office, B) a symbolic stand on behalf of constitutional order, C) one of many milestones on a long march to reform and rebuild democracy or D) a political lever that opens the door for Joe Biden’s administration and the restoration of the ancien régime.

I sort of think the real answer is E) a flawed, noble, quixotic enterprise that will fall short on all those fronts and leave us about where we were before, face to face with the crisis of democratic legitimacy and bereft of clear answers. I won’t try to pass that off as thoughtful, reasoned analysis, and I’m not saying that impeachment is not worth pursuing on its own terms, or that we won’t end up surprised, somehow or other, by how it turns out.

2020 candidates: Don’t you (forget about us)

There’s already a standard take here that’s superficially convincing: We’ve pushed “pause” on the Democratic campaign for a few weeks, at least in terms of national media attention. Nobody in the party can say mean stuff about Joe Biden right now, so he’s likely to see a short-term sympathy boost in the polls, which may also slow the apparent rise of Elizabeth Warren. For Bernie Sanders, who is clearly beginning to hemorrhage progressive supporters to Warren, this could be an opportunity to reset and recalibrate. 

We could go deep insider baseball on that stuff: For instance, it’s simultaneously true that Trump was chasing crazy conspiracy theories in Ukraine and that the real story there is pretty murky and not that great a look for Biden. But I think the real effect of impeachment on the Democratic campaign is to run down the clock a whole bunch. Yeah, we’re still four months away from any actual voting, but it’s not “early” anymore (and five or six weeks of that stretch encompasses the holiday season).

For everybody below the top three contenders, this turn of events could signal the beginning of the end. Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke have enough money to stay in the race for a while, but their mathematical chances just went from the single digits down to fractions of 1 percent. For formerly quasi-viable candidates at the Booker-Castro-Klobuchar level, not to mention below that — nominally, Michael Bennet, Steve Bullock, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang are all still running — it’s time to face the music and get on with their lives, preferably before the October debate. If impeachment accomplishes the winnowing that Democrats couldn’t manage on their own, that’s an unexpected mitzvah, just in time for the High Holidays.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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