The Democrats will face a dilemma if they win control of the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections. Should they impeach President Trump over the Russia affair? Or should they impeach him over the Stormy Daniels porn-star payoff? Or should they impeach him over something else?
There’s no doubt the party’s base of voters is more than ready to stick it to Trump. A recent poll by Axios found that 79 per cent of Democrats believe Congress should begin impeachment proceedings. And that’s now. Imagine how they will feel if they are fired up by victory in November.
The problem is, Democratic leaders are scared of alienating the independent voters the party needs to win. They’ve been through similar times before — back in 2006, they had to calm down some of the more passionate Democrats who wanted to impeach George W. Bush over the Iraq war, and Democratic elders all believe the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton backfired on the GOP in 1998. So now, when Democratic activists demand action — ‘The base wants “hang ’em high,” impeach him,’ said the Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus this week — party bigwigs remain cautious.
No one knows who will prevail, but at the moment, the hang ’em high crowd seems to be gaining the advantage. Impeachment talk, long a staple at Democratic gatherings — late last year 58 House Democrats voted to begin debate on impeachment — moved to a new level last week, specifically on 21 August, the day of two important developments in the investigations of Trump and his associates.
First, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted on eight out of 18 tax and bank fraud charges brought against him by Trump-Russia special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Truth told, that had been expected by many observers, but it gave Mueller renewed momentum.
More electrifying was the announcement — it all happened within the space of a few minutes — that the President’s one-time lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty not only to tax charges involving his personal business but also to a campaign finance violation stemming from the $130,000 in hush money paid to Daniels, the fading porn actress who had a sexual encounter with Trump back in 2006 but threatened to go public with the story right before the 2016 election.
This was what got everyone so excited: the allegation was that the payoff was, in effect, an illegal contribution to the Trump campaign because it was intended to keep Daniels quiet and thus increase Trump’s chances of winning the election. As such, it violated strict limits on what individuals, such as Cohen, can contribute to a campaign. Cohen pleaded guilty to a felony.
Most importantly, during the course of the plea, Cohen said that he arranged the Daniels payoff ‘in co-ordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office,’ and that he did it ‘for the principal purpose of influencing the election’ — language taken straight from the statute.
The ‘candidate’ was obviously Trump, and by saying he broke the law at Trump’s direction, Cohen implicated Trump in committing a crime.
It’s hard to exaggerate how excited the Washington punditocracy became upon hearing this news. The President’s close associate says Trump committed a felony! At that instant, talk about Russia and collusion just seemed to go away. The new thing was the President being implicated in a felony campaign finance offence — surely enough to meet the standard of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ required for impeachment.
‘Are we in impeachment territory here?’ asked a CNN anchor during that night’s coverage. His panel’s answer was a quick Yes, and the pro-impeachment poll numbers among Democrats shot up.
But party leadership remained circumspect. ‘As news of a Cohen plea deal was circulating,’ reported the New York Times, ‘House Democratic leaders urged members on a private call to stay on message, avoiding the topic of impeachment.’ The paper said Democratic leaders instead gave candidates poll-tested advice to ‘cast themselves as offering a check and balance’ on Trump. Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House who wants the job again, urged candidates ‘to speak not of impeachment, but of a “culture of corruption” under Mr Trump’ the Times added in a later article.
One key figure in the impeachment decision, if Democrats win, is Representative Jerrold Nadler, who would become chairman of the Judiciary Committee — the committee responsible for drafting articles of impeachment. Nadler got the party polling memo and spent the days after the Cohen plea trying not to say the I-word. Asked his plans in the event of a Democratic victory, Nadler said the committee’s first job would be to protect the Mueller investigation, and then to ‘be a check and balance’ on Trump.
So on one side are the Democrats’ prudent, careful elected officials, and on the other is the party’s hang ’em high base. For the moment, the leaders are in control. But when 79 per cent of a party’s voters strongly favour one course of action, at some point, eventually, it’s going to happen. Democratic leaders who defy four-fifths of their party’s most loyal supporters do not remain Democratic leaders forever.
Silent in all of this, as always, is Mueller. With Democrats distracted by the bright shiny object of the Cohen plea, the special counsel plugs away, focusing on collusion and the question of whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation. Many observers believe Mueller has not found and will never find the collusion of the Trump resistance’s dreams. Others believe he will have a hard time making a case against Trump on obstruction, too.
But the one thing everyone knows Mueller will do is write a report outlining the evidence he has found. The rules governing Mueller’s appointment require such a report. It has to be filed with the attorney general, but everyone knows it will make its way to Congress.
If the Mueller report accuses Trump of misconduct, and if Democrats are in charge, then even the most timid party leaders will have the cover they need to begin impeachment proceedings. The process is likely to end in failure, of course — to convict and remove Trump would require a two-thirds vote of the Senate, which seems impossible at this point — but the 79 per cent of Democrats who demand Trump’s scalp will finally get the fight they want.