Trump will survive impeachment, for now: But make no mistake, this hurts him

We'll be in uncharted waters, with an impeached president running for re-election. But history's not on his side

By Heather Digby Parton
December 6, 2019 2:26PM (UTC)
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Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon (Getty Images/Salon)

After deliberating with the members of her caucus and reading the House Select Committee on Intelligence report on the Ukraine bribery scandal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Thursday morning that she has directed the chairs of the Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, Financial Services and Ways and Means committees to begin writing articles of impeachment against President Trump.

Her speech was quite moving, offering up pertinent quotes from the founders and laying out her reasoning for going ahead after having been notably reluctant to do so.

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It is unclear whether any of those committees other than the Intelligence Committee will offer evidence of impeachable offenses at this point.  Pelosi made it clear that they did not plan to impeach the president over government policy, no matter how grotesque that may be, because the coming election will settle those differences. Impeachment, in her mind, is instead about the president's abuse of power and his nefarious plan to corrupt the democratic process for his political benefit.

She and the Democrats seem to think that impeaching the president quickly — and then seeing him quickly acquitted in the Senate — will somehow prevent him from doing that, which strikes me as unlikely. If experience is any guide, Trump will claim "total exoneration" and see it as license to do the same thing all over again. After all, the day after Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee, Trump got on the horn and tried to bribe the Ukrainian president to do what Mueller proved the Russians did on his behalf in 2016 — interfere in the presidential election.

There is some talk that the Democrats will include the Volume II charges in the Mueller Report in an impeachment article on obstruction of justice, which makes sense. The Mueller team obviously wrote that part of the report as a quasi-impeachment referral and handed it to the House practically tied up in a big red bow. It's full of testimony given under oath by dozens of Trump associates, flunkeys and administration officials that tells the story of a presidential campaign to defeat and undermine the Russia investigation.  These two crimes, the Russian interference and the attempted Ukrainian bribery, are like bookends, with the first informing the second.

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Whatever the Democrats decide to do about the specific charges, Trump is going to be impeached. I would think dragging that out and keeping him tied down and off-balance would be the better way to ensure that he doesn't use his office for personal political gain again. But that ship is rapidly sailing out of the harbor.

According to CNN, the White House and Republican senators are planning a "defense" in which they attack Joe Biden and his son. They don't want to waste the opportunity to smear the former veep some more while the whole world is watching. But regardless of their sleazy tactics, the outcome of the whole thing is preordained. Trump will not be convicted and will undoubtedly strut around the country afterward, bragging that he beat the rap.

So it's probably time to start thinking about a post-impeachment election campaign. Trump will certainly be on the ticket next year, barring something totally unpredictable. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were in their second terms when they faced impeachment. Andrew Johnson failed to win his own party's nomination in the 1868 election, following his impeachment, so this will be a first.

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But there are some clues about how to deal with this since we've had a couple of elections following impeachment or resignation in the fairly recent past. CNN's Ron Brownstein has written about how the presidential successors in those two impeachments ran their campaigns, and how surprisingly similar they were.  Despite the fact that running against Trump is like running against an alien from outer space, there are some lessons to be taken from those two examples:

In each case, the president's party lost the White House to a candidate — Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Republican George W. Bush in 2000 — who played off lingering public unease about the scandal that had precipitated the impeachment process against their predecessor. In each instance, impeachment functioned like a leak that corroded the foundation under the president's party in the next election.

Brownstein looks back at those campaigns, starting with the fact that public opinion was very different in both cases, with Nixon being remarkably unpopular and Clinton enjoying a 60% job approval throughout. But the opposing party's nominee in the following elections ran campaigns with the same subtext. Neither Carter or Bush dwelled on the scandals, but they both presented themselves as the antidote to the ugliness they exposed.

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Carter said people had heard enough about Watergate but famously pledged "I will never lie to you" and promised to give the country "a government as good as its people." Brownstein says it was enough to put him over the top with an electorate that was exhausted by Watergate. George W. Bush likewise didn't talk about the impeachment directly but called himself "a uniter not a divider" and promised to "restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office," which everyone understood to mean that he wouldn't befoul it with sexual rendezvous in the hallway.

Brownstein grants that this situation is different. After all, Trump himself will be on the ballot and will no doubt wear the impeachment as a badge of honor to rile up his rabid following, declaring himself a martyr to the cause of Making America Great Again. But most analysts agree that impeachment will also have the effect of hardening opposition to Trump, making it even more difficult for him to reach beyond his hardcore base.

The only way Trump can change that dynamic is by sullying the opposition so that he is seen as the lesser of two evils by just enough people to win. On some subconscious level, he obviously knew that all along, which explains his desire to project his own corruption onto Joe Biden, his own pathological lying onto Elizabeth Warren and his own craziness onto Bernie Sanders. Trump has no analytical skills but he does possess a feral survival instinct which tells him that his only hope is to turn his opponents into mirror images of himself and then attack them for it.

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Perhaps this will be successful. But it is far more likely that any of the Democrats running, regardless of their various attributes and skills, will be seen as the decent, honest alternative to Trump regardless of how much he verbally assaults them in the campaign. Impeachment brands Trump in a way that he will never be able to escape. As he himself admitted to House Republicans, "You don't want it on your résumé."

It's going to be worse than that. It will be in the first paragraph of his obituary. We can only hope the words "Donald J. Trump, one-term president ..." will be there too.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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