The campaign to impeach President Trump began immediately upon his inauguration. That’s not an exaggeration. On January 20, 2017, The Washington Post reported on a movement to rally support for impeaching Donald Trump under the little known Emoluments Clause.
While that case never seemed to gain much traction, some of Trump’s recent actions with respect to the FBI have sparked growing calls for his impeachment. The effort is still in its early stages to be sure. But Trump’s impressive knack for making bad decisions, even on purely strategic grounds, seems likely to encourage it in the near future.
For this reason, the possibility is worth evaluating.
Pros of Impeachment
The first question to consider here is whether Trump does deserve to be impeached under the Constitution.
The answer is almost certainly yes. The trouble is that it is equally certain he will not be impeached on those grounds.
Grounds for Impeachment
There are a few different options one could choose as reasons for Trump’s impeachment. The most clear-cut case comes from Trump’s illegal Tomahawk missile strikes against the government of Syria, in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack. This episode plainly violated international law as an aggressive military action by the US. It was also clearly unauthorized under the constitution.
Of course, Presidents have routinely tested and pushed the limits of their war-making authority. However, the Syria strike stands out as even more indefensible than normal.
When President Obama carried out his various unconstitutional foreign policy actions–for example, drone strikes outside of war zones, the war against ISIS–he would generally argue that he actually did have authority under a resolution Congress passed back in 2001 after 9/11. That resolution authorized the president to go after Al Qaeda and associated forces. The problem was that the president effectively argued it justified going after groups that didn’t even exist at the time the resolution was passed, and in the case of ISIS, that it can be used to attack groups that are explicitly at war with Al Qaeda. In other words, the argument doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny, but because there is bipartisan support for all of these unconstitutional policies, it didn’t really get questioned.
With the Syria strike, however, that argument becomes entirely implausible. The Assad government plainly has nothing to do with Al Qaeda other than fight a war against them, and they have not made any effort to attack Americans during the conflict. So the 2001 AUMF can’t provide any cover at all. And since Trump didn’t bother to get any Congressional approval of the strike, the strike is clearly illegal. Such an abuse of authority would clearly constitute a legitimate grounds for impeachment.
On this score alone, it would be a positive thing for Trump to be impeached. As I argued in the case of James Comey’s termination, it tends to be a good thing when people that deserve to get fired actually do get fired. This is the same argument with a different antagonist.
Over the 2016 and 2017 political cycle, Trump has been routinely accused of “normalizing ______” with his rhetoric. Depending on the article and event in question, that blank will be filled with something bad–bigotry, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, or something along these lines.
That said, it is often overlooked that Trump is also normalizing some distinctly positive things. For instance, a growing number of people now assume that the White House is probably lying as their default position. We don’t know if this skepticism will carry over effectively to the next president, but it’s safe to say Trump has given it a boost.
Similarly, it would not be a bad thing if impeaching politicians was normalized as well. I’m not sure how far we’d need to go back to find a president that didn’t commit an obvious impeachable offense. Given that abuse of power is so common, it would be useful if Congress grew accustomed to using the legal remedy the constitution prescribes to address it.
A Legitimate Reason?
While the Syria strikes offer a strong case for impeachment against Trump, that’s not the case that would actually end up being used.
Instead, at the moment, the leading candidate would appear to be the possibility that Trump tried to interfere with a federal investigation–specifically the investigation of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn.
It’s still far too soon to say with any certainty whether there’s merit to this case. Right now, the main evidence we have is a memo read over the phone to a New York Times reporter, apparently alleging this influence. The trouble is that the memo is written by a former FBI Director who recently said under oath that no such influence occurred. Clearly, one part of this story doesn’t fit together, but we don’t know which.
In any case, we can be somewhat grateful that these are the types of issues that appear to be getting the most impeachment attention. This is good news because it actually could be a real offense. Trump wouldn’t be the first to do it, and it would not be the worst thing he’s done, but it is a problem if White House is trying to influence particular investigations.
Cons of Impeachment
The items above may seem to offer compelling reasons to be optimistic about Trump, there is one major downside that cancels it out.
What Comes Next?
If and when Trump gets removed from office, the job would go to VP Mike Pence. It’s very likely that Pence would be a more competent and politically savvy administrator than Trump has been. Unlike Trump so far, Pence might actually be able to secure passage on some of his policy ideas.
That almost sounds like a good thing. And indeed, if Pence had better ideas than Trump, it would be. But that’s not the case.
Pence is a fairly typical Republican in most respects. That means he’s bad on the drug war, wants to crack down on immigration, and opposes Obamacare–but does not understand the issue well enough to support a real solution to it. On these issues, he and Trump appear to be basically on the same unpleasant page.
But there is one issue where Pence was substantially worse than Trump during the campaign. That’s the question of Syria and Russia. During the VP debate last year, Pence confidently laid out a horrifying policy approach including safe zones and asserting “strong leadership”–which is a favorite American euphemism for belligerence.
At the time, this was substantially more belligerent than Trump. Since Trump’s Syria strike, the gap has definitely narrowed. Even so, Pence still seems a surer bet for confrontation with Russia and Syria than Trump. After all, Trump bombed Syria only after a tragedy gave him a pretext, however flimsy and unproven. Pence was advocating for outright confrontation even when no comparable pretext existed.
The bottom line is that if you’re worried about what policies Trump is going to implement, you should probably be even more worried about Pence. He advocates many of the same things, but he might be politically competent enough to actually implement them.
If this feels like a strange argument, it’s useful to consider the following analogy offered by economist Bob Murphy. If you could vote to decide who would run the Death Star, would you choose Jabba the Hutt or Darth Vader?
The upshot: Sometimes incompetence is a virtue.
Putting it all together, it’s tough to say where this leaves us. On the one hand, Trump really does deserve to be impeached. On the other hand, it might leave us in an even more precarious position than we are currently.