President Donald Trump and his allies weren’t shy about using the specter of impeachment during the 2018 midterm campaign to rally the President’s core supporters to the polls.
And for their 2020 campaign, they were prepared to use the real thing. With House Democrats newly in the majority and the prospects of impeachment surging, Trump and his political allies – while certainly not hankering for it – have eyed the potential political upside: using a Democratic impeachment as a powerful foil to galvanize Republicans in droves to re-elect Trump.
Several of the President’s political advisers, preparing for a re-election campaign focused on boosting turnout among the President’s base of supporters, have looked to the possibility of Trump’s impeachment as an opportunity to cast Trump as a victim of Washington politics and overzealous Democrats, three sources close to the White House and the campaign said. And with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – which Trump has frequently cast on the campaign trail as a “witch hunt” – expected to end soon, Trump is looking for a new boogeyman.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is throwing cold water on those prospects, declaring in an interview published Monday that she is “not for impeachment.”
“I’m not for impeachment. This is news,” Pelosi told The Washington Post. “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.”
“And he’s just not worth it,” she added, referring to Trump.
The comments amounted to Pelosi’s strongest to date on the prospects of impeaching Trump and while she did not entirely close the door on the possibility, her comments indicated that she is loath to hand the President a deeply divisive issue to rev up his base and drive the conversation away from policy issues.
Now, Pelosi’s comments are causing some in the President’s political orbit to recalibrate.
“I think it was really smart on her part,” a senior Republican operative close to the campaign said of Pelosi. “Why go through a lengthy drawn out fight over something that’s going to be divisive and energize the President’s base when there’s an election coming up and you can win that?”
Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader and a close ally of Trump’s, also tipped his hat in Pelosi’s direction: “I think Nancy Pelosi is smart to say that there shouldn’t be an impeachment because there are no grounds to do it.”
Trump, for his part, took to Twitter to say he “greatly” appreciates Pelosi’s comments.
The President’s political orbit isn’t unanimous in viewing the prospect of an impeachment as a political net positive for the President. The Senate Republican majority and two-thirds majority threshold in the Senate for conviction all but ensure Trump would not be removed from office if he is impeached, but Trump is not eager to earn the distinction of becoming just the third President to face impeachment proceedings.
One Trump campaign adviser said it was “premature” to know whether impeachment proceedings would play in the President’s favor. The Mueller report has yet to emerge and it’s not clear what offenses Democrats would pursue as grounds for impeachment.
“We don’t really know what we’re dealing with,” the adviser said.
But if Democrats make a move off something most of the public does not consider a serious enough offense – the scenario Pelosi said she opposes – Democrats would face a “pretty sharp reaction” from the public, the adviser said, and the President would pounce.
Separately, a senior Trump campaign official argued that impeachment isn’t a necessary ingredient to rev up the President’s base in 2020.
“I think our base is energized, regardless,” the official said.
But in a sign of the potency of the issue, the Trump campaign quickly seized on Pelosi’s comments on impeachment as an opportunity to capitalize on the Democratic divide, blasting out a statement to press 2020 Democratic candidates into laying out their stance on the issue.
“Do they agree with the speaker who stands in opposition to baseless impeachment charges, or will they risk fracturing the country by bowing to the radical elements in their party who want to disenfranchise the American people and overturn the legitimate and lawful result of the last election?” Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in the statement.
Republican and Democratic operatives alike are looking to the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton as an important reminder: Clinton, who was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, saw his approval rating rocket to the highest level of his presidency during the impeachment proceedings. It’s the kind of scenario that, heading into an election year, some of the President’s allies have been hoping for.
And it’s a lesson Pelosi seems to have internalized.
“When you look at the two things you need – it’s public opinion and Republicans. Right now, we have neither one,” a senior House Democratic aide told CNN. “Why go down that path when you don’t have those two elements?”
Even without impeachment, Democrats will continue to pursue investigations into Trump and his administration and, while the findings could prove damaging, the President has already begun to fashion those investigations into his latest boogeyman, accusing Democrats of zealous political overreach.
Pelosi made clear she is not completely closing the door on impeachment, leaving space for “something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan” that could make impeachment a worthwhile endeavor.
And so while some of Trump’s advisers took Pelosi’s comments as a sign she is trying to move her caucus away from impeachment, others saw it as a set up.
“She has 100% intent of impeaching this President,” said David Bossie, an outside political adviser of the President’s who worked as the House oversight committee’s chief investigator in the lead-up to Clinton’s impeachment.
He described Pelosi’s comments as a “political ploy” to later claim that she is moving toward impeachment based on overwhelming evidence, despite her initial reluctance.
And if, as Bossie believes, Democrats do ultimately move to impeach the President, there will be a “boomerang effect” – and not just with the President’s base, Bossie argued.
“I believe that the overreach that Democrats will show every American will have a boomerang effect. There could be some political benefit to the President when the American people are educated as to the ridiculous nature of what they are doing,” Bossie said. “It energizes our base, but it also speaks directly to those very few people in the middle in those very important swing states.”