It seems a crazy idea that any president would actually want to be impeached.
But Donald Trump has so subverted Washington logic with his wild, norm-crushing presidency that there is now a serious conversation – at least among Democrats – about whether he views the ultimate constitutional crisis as a weapon in his re-election campaign.
The possibility is shaping the strategies of Democratic leaders as they weigh the political risks of impeachment and their duty to defend principles of American governance.
Many Democrats fear that Trump may be laying an impeachment trap that could consume the House majority, distract them from key issues like health care and alienate persuadable voters.
But it’s also possible their leaders could be talking up the idea that Trump wants to be impeached as a way to quell discontent among some base activists that Washington Democrats are not doing more to constrain the President.
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The question is not going away, given Trump’s staggeringly broad effort to subvert investigations of his presidency, campaign, personal finances and business career.
“The President is almost self-impeaching because he is, every day, demonstrating more obstruction of justice and disrespect for Congress’ legitimate role to subpoena,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday.
One of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, is, like Pelosi, wary of the risks of impeachment. But he acknowledged Trump’s own actions might be propelling Washington toward a precipice.
“Part of our reluctance is we are already a bitterly divided country and an impeachment process will divide us further,” Schiff said Sunday on “This Week” on ABC News. “He certainly seems to be trying and maybe this is his perverse way of dividing us more … He thinks that’s to his political advantage, but it’s certainly not to the country’s advantage.”
Trump dodged a question in a Politico interview last week about whether he wanted to be impeached. And he argues that if anyone committed crimes over the 2016 campaign, it is Democrats, not him.
At other times he has, however, seemed to be testing out arguments that he could use in his defense in an impeachment showdown.
“It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump told Reuters in an interview in December.
“I’m not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” he said.
Trump has unapologetically based his political appeal on widening national divides – so he is unlikely to worry about exacerbating them if it benefits him politically. And like everyone else, he reads polls that show that most Americans do not want to go through the trauma of an impeachment drama for the third time in 50 years.
It’s possible that the wider political divides get, the more Trump benefits. The spectacle would help him charge up the political base he needs to turn out in droves in 2020 with claims their 2016 votes were being stolen by political elites.
Trump would also hope to turn more moderate voters against the Democrats by painting their efforts as cravenly partisan political overreach.
Trump’s corrosive coup narrative
A Democratic effort to oust Trump would bolster his narrative that his opponents have long been bent on a coup to oust him.
This idea seemed to animate the President during a weekend of epic tweeting and retweeting.
“From long before I ever took office, I was under a sick & unlawful investigation concerning what has become known as the Russian hoax,” Trump wrote on Sunday.
“My campaign was being seriously spied upon by intel agencies and the Democrats. This never happened before in American history, and it all turned out to be a total scam, a Witch Hunt, that yielded No Collusion, No Obstruction. This must never be allowed to happen again!”
While special counsel Robert Mueller did not establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, he did show repeated contacts between Moscow’s meddling operation and the GOP nominee’s team.
There is also plentiful evidence of obstruction of justice – that more than 800 former federal prosecutors now say would have been sufficient to prosecute Trump were he a private citizen.
Suspicions that Trump may perversely see an upside to impeachment are supported by a simple fact: It is very unlikely to force him from office.
He has proven that there are almost no circumstances in which a two-thirds Senate super majority swelled by defecting Republicans would vote to convict him in an impeachment trial.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – building on a political narrative sketched by Attorney General William Barr – is framing the end of the special counsel investigation as “case closed.”
Much Democratic reticence about impeachment is shaped by a certain reading of the history of the Bill Clinton era.
In midterm elections in 1998 that took place after Republicans had initiated the impeachment process, Democrats actually picked up House seats in a reverse of historical trends. The result has been read ever since as a judgment by voters to rebuke Republicans who sought unsuccessfully to oust a twice-elected President.
Some Democrats fear that an impeachment process now could play into the current President’s hands and allow him to rally the country against them.
It is not often remembered, however, that Republicans went on to win the presidency less than two years after Clinton survived his Senate trial – after a campaign in which George W. Bush promised to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House in an oblique reference to impeachment.
White House insists that it’s Democrats who are overreaching
Despite the Democratic House majority’s wariness about impeachment, the possibility seems more likely than ever.
The White House is insisting its resistance to Democratic power is legitimate.
“There are rules and norms governing congressional oversight of the executive branch, and the Democrats simply refuse to abide by them,” White House spokesman Steve Groves said in a statement Sunday.
“Democrats are demanding documents they know they have no legal right to see – including confidential communications between the president and foreign leaders and grand jury information that cannot be disclosed under the law.”
Trump is ordering current and former officials to ignore subpoenas. He is refusing to turn over documents and personal files like his tax returns.
And he has even taken personal legal action against a congressional committee to keep his financial records private.
The President is also making what appears to be extreme claims of executive privilege.
The crisis may not be far away
Despite this obstruction, the nation is not yet in a constitutional crisis. But the moment may not be far away.
Many disputes between the White House and Congress are now likely to churn through the court system and could even rise to the Supreme Court.
If the White House were to refuse a Court order to honor subpoenas, the Democratic House majority, having exhausted lesser powers to hold a President to account, may have no option but to proceed to impeachment to preserve the integrity of Congress itself.
That possibility may have been in Pelosi’s mind when she was talking about “self-impeachment.”
The hope of Democrats would be that after methodically working through the process of trying to constrain a President, the public at that point would be less likely to react negatively to the initiation of impeachment proceedings.
The party is already trying to build a case of administration-wide malfeasance and obstruction that could shape public perceptions about the Trump presidency.
There is now talk of “bundling” several contempt of Congress citations for top Cabinet officials in one House vote to maximize the political fallout for the administration.
Barr was found to be in contempt last week by the House Judiciary Committee for refusing to hand over an unredacted version of the report from special counsel Robert Mueller. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig could soon face similar censure after being subpoenaed to hand over six years of Trump’s tax returns by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Given America’s entrenched polarization, it seems unlikely that views of the President will shift dramatically enough to change the political calculation over impeachment.
But historians sometimes point out that public opinion became more favorable to the possibility of impeaching President Richard Nixon as his administration’s misdeeds were revealed by Senate Watergate hearings chaired by North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin. In the end, Nixon resigned before he was impeached, a step it is impossible to imagine Trump emulating.
Some Democrats seem to believe that a concentrated public airing of Trump’s behavior, with testimony from central players like Mueller and former White House counsel Don McGahn, could damage the Trump presidency sufficiently to weaken him in 2020.
One potential Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is ready to take on the risks of impeachment.
“Congress can simply not look the other way. There is no political convenience exception to the Constitution of the United States of America,” Warren said in a swing through Ohio on Saturday.