Trump's impeachment process could be a futile exercise

While Trump is nowhere near as popular as Clinton was, he retains the loyalty of his base, who dominate the Republican primaries, and, unlike Clinton, enjoys majority support in the Senate.

By Eric Posner (Hard Reality)

Published: Thu 3 Oct 2019, 10:23 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 12:30 AM

America's Democrats have made a serious mistake by launching impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. They are replaying the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, a futile exercise that damaged Republicans, enhanced Clinton's power, and caused institutional damage as well.
The common factor of the two impeachments is that it was clear from the start that the US Senate would never convict, which requires a two-thirds majority. The 45 Senate Democrats were not happy that Clinton perjured himself before a grand jury, obstructed justice, and conducted an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But they did not believe that this behaviour was grounds for removal from office. Republicans leading the impeachment knew that few if any Senate Democrats would vote to convict. But Republicans hoped to embarrass the Democrats and damage Clinton, believing they would pick up some seats in the November 1998 election by launching impeachment proceedings. They were wrong. Clinton's popularity just rose.
Today, Senate Republicans may well be privately concerned about Trump's behaviour.
But there is no indication that even one would vote in favour of removal. While Trump is nowhere near as popular as Clinton was, he retains the loyalty of his base, who dominate the Republican primaries, and, unlike Clinton, he enjoys majority support in the Senate. Indeed, the extraordinary enthusiasm of Trump's supporters - their indifference to his many other scandals - almost guarantees that any additional information that might materialise during the impeachment hearings will not influence Republican senators.
Some supporters of impeachment argue that the gravity of the accusations against Trump will ensure his conviction. But we have been through this before. Perhaps the story would be different if Trump had persuaded Ukrainians to arrest Joe Biden while sightseeing in Kyiv. The president's behaviour, as odious as it is, is a far cry from Richard Nixon's involvement in espionage against the Democratic Party.
Others argue that even if Trump is not removed, impeachment in the House will send a strong signal that the president's behaviour violates American values. But impeachment has its own narrative logic: once the Democrats initiate it, they either win or lose.
Still others believe that impeachment hearings will reveal that Trump has committed crimes or betrayed the country in as yet undisclosed ways, or that the hearings will enable Democrats to convey the seriousness of all the president's wrongdoing in a way that will galvanise the public. But the leaky Trump administration has kept few secrets so far, and much of his behaviour has been normalised, at least for his Republican supporters. Impeachment proceedings, unlike judicial proceedings, are a cumbersome mechanism for developing evidence. Nothing new was learned about Clinton after the Starr Report was issued, and nothing new will be learned about Trump.
Indeed, Trump's character flaws and misbehaviour are already so well-known that the impeachment proceedings will most likely blow back and cause more harm to Democratic politicians than Republicans. Again, the Clinton impeachment offers lessons. Everyone knew, or suspected, that Clinton was a womaniser and a serial liar.
People were not quite as aware that Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich had also conducted an extramarital affair, as did his successor, Bob Livingston. Both resigned; Clinton remained in office. Trump's greatest skill is in turning his prosecutors into the accused. Expect this to happen again, with Trump using his Twitter account to shine a spotlight on whichever Democrats have the greatest political vulnerabilities.
None of this is rocket science. So, why would a canny politician like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi yield to other members' pressure for impeachment? The answer stems from the basic logic of Congress in a polarised era.
Congress is a collective body. Its members are beholden to voters in specific districts or states rather than the country as a whole. House Democrats from more liberal districts fear that they will be defeated in primaries by more forcefully anti-Trump challengers. The only way to counter such challenges is by supporting impeachment.
As more Democrats jump on the bandwagon, more moderate Democrats join in to avoid looking like defenders of Trump's misconduct.
The political logic that trapped the Republicans in 1998 will operate the same way on the Democrats in 2019. 
- Project Syndicate
Eric Posner is Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School

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