The Political Path to Impeachment

Calls for impeachment are no great novelty in U.S. politics, but serious discussion of the possibility is usually confined to the remote wings of whatever party is out of power. In the infant Trump presidency, however, there is already widespread speculation over the possibility as the administration has been immersed in chaos and scandal since the start and whispers about Trump’s mental stability have become increasingly public. The general line of thinking is that Trump won’t be impeached so long as Republicans control Congress and that is likely true. No president has been removed from office by impeachment – Johnson and Clinton were acquitted by the Senate and Nixon resigned before being impeached – and it is obviously unlikely that this will change in an era of one-party rule. There is, however, a path to impeachment – a narrow one to be sure, but one that cannot be entirely written off.

Trump Hearts Scandal

Although Trump and his allies are surely outraged that impeachment is even being discussed, the impetus behind all the fevered speculation and sudden interest in the 25th Amendment is the actions of Trump himself. His campaign was perpetually mired in scandal and controversy, and Trump has been unable or unwilling to assume a more presidential demeanor after assuming office.

Barely a month into his term the administration has already been roiled by blockbuster revelations that the campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence officials throughout the campaign and lied about it up until it made the papers. Trump has also left himself exposed to charges of corruption with a barely serious effort to resolve the conflicts of interest from his sprawling real estate business. When you consider the deluge of leaks about the administration, this administration seems to have positioned itself better than any in recent memory for a massive and debilitating scandal.

GOP Congressional Majorities Are Probably Safe…Probably.

If Trump does crack open the impeachment door through his own penchant for scandal and ineptitude, there may be political incentives for the GOP to go down that path. Although Trump isn’t as wildly unpopular as many would like to believe (at least with Republican voters), he is remarkably disliked for a new president, and his chaotic and polarizing administration isn’t winning over many converts. The GOP has built itself a firewall of gerrymandered districts to protect its majority in the House, but their stranglehold on the House isn’t unbreakable. The Republicans are also blessed with a highly favorable Senate map in 2018, but once again it isn’t impossible to imagine scenarios where their majority is imperiled by a scandal-prone and incompetent president. A long-shot threat to the Republican congressional majorities is unlikely to drive any serious impeachment proceedings, but if Trump sinks further into the muck of scandal the political risks will surely factor into their calculations.

The Dream of President Pence

Another potential incentive for the GOP is vice president Pence. It’s become almost a cliché for well-sourced articles to note that, behind several closed doors and under a blanket, Congressional Republicans express deep discomfort with the ill-prepared and erratic president. To say that they would be more comfortable with a President Pence would be a massive understatement. Pence served six terms in the House, served as chairman of the Republican conference for two years (a stepping stone position held in the past by Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney and John Boehner), and left Washington to become governor of a conservative Midwestern state. The House GOP bromance with Pence won’t inspire impeachment hearings of course, but having one of their own waiting in the wings is another potential incentive.

Remember the Autopsy!

Another political calculation that could serve as a factor in any unprecedented impeachment proceedings is the very real possibility that the Trump presidency is wrecking the GOP brand. Although the party won a smashing victory on November 8th, there are reasons to believe that it may be short lived. While Trump claimed the 46th largest electoral college share in U.S. history, the GOP still lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections. The House majority is protected by elaborately-designed districts (the GOP got 49% of the total national vote in House elections but secured 55% of the seats), but these districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census, and in the meantime court challenges to tangled-yarn-shaped districts have made progress in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In the Senate, Trump’s unpopularity may check Republican’s ability to capitalize on the favorable 2018 Senate map, and the party has 22 seats to defend in the 2020 elections. Needless to say, a lot can change between now and tomorrow, but the GOP is a party with some obvious long-term challenges and a firm anchor to its base.

Any possibility that the Republicans will take down Trump in the name of the future viability is belied by recent history. The GOP has shown itself to be even more enthusiastic than the Democratic Party about shooting itself in the foot as a testament to ideological purity. In 2010 the Republicans virtually gave away the Senate majority by nominating a slate of lackluster candidates, including the man who introduced the term “legitimate rape” to our political lexicon and another candidate who ran an ad to address rumors that she had dabbled in witchcraft.

After Obama was reelected in 2012, the party commissioned an “autopsy” of the race to examine how the GOP could broaden its appeal. Virtually every aspect of  that report (immigration reform, minority outreach, don’t elect as many rich people) has been wholly and completely repudiated by the Trump campaign and administration. One author of the report even left the party.

Politics, of course, turns on short-term considerations and most Republican officials will cheerfully appease Trump so long as he is in power. However, it doesn’t take a political whiz to scroll through the demographic breakdowns of Trump’s approval ratings to see that see that he is underwater with moderates, every minority group, and young voters. The party cannot sustain its viability solely with conservative white voters born before 1970. This is a long-term calculation with little relevance to many well-protected Republican officeholders, but party officials will certainly notice the trends.

Incompetence Transcends Partisanship. Sort of. Maybe.

One thing several million people have realized lately is that Donald Trump does not seem prepared to be president. His administration has been erratic, prone to unforced errors, and continually mired in distracting controversies (inauguration crowds, Nordstrom…). “Professionalism” is not a word many people would use to describe the Trump administration. Republicans have tacitly acknowledged this at times. The safe way for Republicans to criticize the disastrous roll out of Trump’s travel ban was to say that it was not properly rolled out, which is an understated way of saying that it was an incredible disaster. If Trump and his administration continue to fumble through way through every attempt at policy, this could seriously undercut an idea that was central to Trump’s popularity, which is that he is no-nonsense boss who can “get things done.” Tens of millions of voters may believe in Trump regardless of what he does, but there are plenty of others who won’t abide massive incompetence.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, it seems trite to speak to any conception of national purpose that is not firmly established in one partisan camp and well-fortified with grievance and outrage, but if Trump demonstrates his inability to serve as a partisan warrior, perhaps Republicans will find time to consider the well-being of the country.