Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
The moral, constitutional, and strategic dilemma House Democrats face in deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against the crime-prone 45th president is well known. At one end of the spectrum stands Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has consistently labeled impeachment as both a distraction from the message her party should be carrying into 2020 and unnecessary as long as other avenues exist for investigating Trump. At the other end stand a growing number of House Democrats and 2020 presidential candidates, a host of activists (many of whom have favored impeachment for a long time), and Republican congressman Justin Amash, who is in the process of being tarred and featured for his heresy.
Everyone agrees that the president’s abrasive obstructionism toward anyone asking questions about his conduct is a huge provocation. But the underlying question yet to be fully pondered is this: Does Trump want to be impeached? Pelosi seems to think so, but she’s possibly a bit prejudiced on this subject.
The direct evidence isn’t clear. Yes, Trump is complaining endlessly about Democratic investigations and talk of impeachment, expressing astonishment that anyone could act to upset the golden age he has inaugurated at home and around the globe. He may legitimately have so much to hide that stonewalling Congress is the only course of action acceptable to him. It’s also clear that he’s sacrificing opportunities to implement elements of his own agenda by refusing even to talk to Democrats until they stop investigating him, which of course they can never do. All these factors suggest he hates the idea of being impeached.
But inflaming partisan passions is the most predictable part of his M.O. And he knows Senate Republicans won’t allow him to be convicted, no matter what House Democrats decide to do.
Trump is likely receiving conflicting advice.
In answering the question of Trump’s attitude toward impeachment, on the negative side of the ledger are (a) the shame involved in becoming only the third president in history to face it (after Johnson and Clinton; impeachment proceedings were initiated against Nixon, but he resigned before the House could vote on the articles), (b) the high likelihood that impeachment could offer House Democrats a lever for prevailing in federal court in their demands for documents and testimony that the administration has been stonewalling, (c) the spotlight that impeachment would shine on evidence of misconduct that is now largely buried in the massive and redacted pages of the Mueller Report, and (d) the sandstorm of controversy that would obscure Trump’s 2020 message and those of his GOP allies and Democratic opponents.
On the positive side is the largely conclusive evidence that Trump’s sole strategy for reelection is to drag Democrats so deeply into the fever swamps of polarization that the election will turn on his impressive abilities to get the MAGA folk psyched out of their skulls in fury toward and resentment of sneering liberal elites and their dusky minority ground troops. It’s an environment in which policy issues (other than a few Trump has chosen to stoke white voter passions) and even objective conditions in the country won’t matter, neutralizing the kind of appeals Democrats successfully made in last year’s midterm elections. And an impeachment-driven hatefest is arguably the only context in which Trump feels comfortable.
Aaron Blake raises a third possibility: It’s all a massive head-fake:
Perhaps this is a bit of reverse psychology. Maybe Trump is indeed legitimately worried about how all this might turn out, but he wants Democrats to think he’s goading them into impeachment. If he makes it seem as if he’s really concerned about it and does all kinds of things to up the impeachment ante, it’ll make them believe they are walking into a trap — a trap, it bears noting, that they were already worried was a trap.
Ultimately divining Trump’s intentions in this critical moment probably comes down to a choice of two very different takes on his character and intelligence.
If he is, as some observers believe, a toddler President with no impulse control or strategic common sense, then what you see is what you get: He’s terrified of impeachment and will fight like hell to prevent any investigation of his administration.
But if he is the infernally crafty strategist of The Art of the Deal, liberated from scruples and cheerful about collateral damage, as many friends and some enemies believe, then perhaps he really does want to get thrown into that particular briar patch.
You can make yourself crazy trying to figure it out.