Here’s the problem
Impeachment is about to make everything worse.
If our politics seems overheated, our institutions beleaguered and our public debate degraded, just wait until we are in the midst of the impeachment debate.
Democrats have had an impeachment itch that they’ve been desperate to scratch ever since Donald Trump took office. For them, Ukraine is equal parts a genuine outrage and an excuse, the release valve for nearly three years of fear and loathing.
Rather than conducting himself as if he’s aware that a hysterical opposition is eager to impeach him just as soon as it finds a reason, Trump has embraced constant provocation. He has shown little interest in distinguishing between himself and the high office that he holds. Although we need to learn more, there’s clearly an impropriety in his handling of Ukraine.
If he’d only urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to cooperate with Attorney General Bill Barr on the probe related to the beginnings of the 2016 Russian investigation, it would be completely appropriate (the president reportedly pushed other countries to cooperate, as well). Or, if the story only involved Rudy Giuliani poking around in Ukraine under his own power to find damaging information on the Bidens, it’d be standard hardball politics. It’s the intersection of the latter with Trump’s official capacity as president that’s inappropriate.
Enough to impeach and remove him? Presidential-level diplomacy always involves horse-trading, and it, surely, is not the first time a president has prodded an ally to do him a favor in his political interest. The risk of Trump’s heavy-handed request – an aid package to Ukraine was being held up at the time – was that the Ukrainians would have felt compelled to manufacture damaging information on the Bidens. That didn’t happen, and the aid, thanks to congressional pressure, was released in short order.
So far as we know, Ukraine lacks the hallmarks of other presidential scandals. There’s been no cover-up. Trying to keep a transcript of a presidential call from leaking in the absence of any congressional or criminal investigation doesn’t qualify. And once the controversy became public, the White House rapidly released key documents.
Nor is there any violation of law. Trump’s ask of Zelenskiy wasn’t extortion or a campaign-finance violation under any rational interpretation of our statutes. If it was, practically every president in our history would have had criminal exposure.
Unless there’s a thermonuclear revelation, impeachment will be an exercise in futility, inevitably ending with Trump’s Senate acquittal. There’s tsk-tsking in the press and among Democrats about Republicans holding the line. But GOP senators, by and large, are going to end up where their voters are. You can’t expect Republicans to be told, falsely, for two and a half years straight that some conspiracy with the Russians was going to be uncovered imminently and then accept at face value a five-alarm interpretation of Ukraine.
Democrats can point to the predicate of the Clinton impeachment. Although if Trump had flagrantly and repeatedly perjured himself, he’d have been impeached long ago. The lesson from the 1990s is, Yes, you can impeach in the absence of any real hope of convicting in the Senate, but it’s a lot of trouble to go through for basically a censure vote.
If Trump were for some reason actually removed on anything like the current universe of possible evidence, it would create a crisis of legitimacy at the heart of our government. Think of what the U.K. is going through with Brexit, only worse. Ten of millions of Trump voters would feel cheated and disenfranchised, and the roiling populism that Trump has tapped into would get stronger, not dissipate.
Congress has shown before that it’s possible to conduct a big, news-dominating investigation without impeachment proceedings; it’s what it did during the Iran-Contra hearings in Ronald Reagan’s second term. But impeachment is the verdict that Democrats have always wanted, and any offense will do.
Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry.