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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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November 13: Impeachment Trial Could Seriously Constrain Senators Running for President

My efforts to understand and explain the murky process for impeachment trials led me to this realization which I shared at New York:

[F]or six particular Democratic presidential candidates and their campaigns (Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren), the possibility of a Senate impeachment trial occurring during the early stages of the caucus/primary season represents a potential calamity. And as the Washington Post reports, that’s a real possibility, particularly if the House drags its feet for reasons ranging from administration obstruction to the desire not to spoil the festive holiday spirit:

“House Democrats increasingly expect their impeachment effort against President Trump to stretch well past Thanksgiving, possibly forcing a Senate trial into January or later — a timeline that could disrupt the final weeks of campaigning before the party starts to choose its nominee.

“House leaders had initially hoped to hold a floor vote before the Nov. 28 holiday so the Senate could hold trial before Christmas. But the surprising number of witnesses agreeing to testify behind closed doors in the Capitol over the past few weeks has extended the timeline and sparked a debate over whether prolonged impeachment proceedings are politically prudent.”

More recently House Democrats have been talking about Xmas as a practical deadline for concluding their part of the impeachment process, which means the beginning of any Senate trial will extend well into 2020.

The standing Senate rules do require a fairly expeditious beginning for impeachment trials after the House has passed articles of impeachment, so it’s not like Mitch McConnell can deviously get it rolling the night of the Iowa Caucuses (February 3). But if the House really doesn’t get its part done until near the end of the year, you could easily see a trial running through the critical pre-Iowa stretch of frenzied activity. The Clinton trial, which was about as cut-and-dried as any presidential impeachment trial could be, lasted from January 7 until February 12, 1999. Let’s say for the sake of argument a Trump trial begins and ends precisely on those dates in 2020. It would encompass both the Iowa caucuses (February 3) and the New Hampshire primary (February 11). If it started later or ran longer, it could directly interfere with the Nevada caucuses (February 22), the South Carolina primary (February 29), or — worst-case scenario — the 12 states (including California and Texas) holding primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday (March 3).

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who is presumably privy to Mitch McConnell’s thinking, said on November 12 that he anticipated a six-to-eight week trial. That would be longer than the Clinton trial.

An impeachment trial doesn’t allow for time off to do campaign events: The Senate rules require that once the trial begins, it must stay in session six days a week (Burr suggested a daily schedule running from 12:30 to 6:30). Perhaps some senators think they could make more hay at an impeachment trial than they could hitting the potluck circuit in Iowa or working street corners in New Hampshire, as the Post suggests:

“Several senators running for president, including Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a former state prosecutor, are likely to try to use a trial of Trump as a showcase for their candidacy.”

Unfortunately, the current Senate rules compel virtual silence from senators during the trial itself, though they are free to run their mouths before it begins and after it ends. During the trial, unless precedents are ignored, all senators get to do is to send written questions to be posed by the House managers or the president’s attorneys, and then stand up and vote “guilty” or “not guilty” when the deal goes down. Not much room for showboating there.

Now I suppose it’s possible the rules could be interpreted in a way that would allow Kamala Harris and her senatorial rivals to leave the Capitol building each night of the trial, go two blocks away, and make brilliant presentations on the case against Trump or anything else that popped into their heads. But that’s likely going to be subject to ad hoc impeachment trial rules that a majority of the Senate — e.g., the Republican majority — will impose. It’s doubtful GOP senators will feel inclined to accommodate the political needs of their Democratic colleagues. In talking about the precedents dictating silence, McConnell said earlier this month:

“McConnell … warned that senators won’t be allowed to speak because they are jurors. McConnell said such silence ‘would be good therapy for a number of them.’”

If an impeachment trial is a headache for those six senators (or however many of them are still in the race, if any, when this all happens), it could be a boon to non-senators — particularly Joe Biden, who can bloviate to his heart’s desire about the lessons he learned on impeachment and all the issues involving Trump during his 44 years as a member or presiding officer of the Upper Chamber.

For candidates and their staff, all these contingencies make the already difficult task of planning and executing a campaign in the hothouse atmosphere of this cycle impossibly tricky. And for senators who want to be president, knowing that Mitch McConnell and his troops will get the final say on some of the most crucial questions of timing and procedure is like knowing that Satan gets one final shot at your soul right there at the Pearly Gates.


November 8: The Perfect Xmas Present For Democrats: Impeaching Trump

As the timetable for the impeachment process becomes clearer, I’m trying to keep a close eye on it at New York:

[I]mpeaching a president is a job with a lot of moving parts and vast elements of uncertainty. It’s even more complicated when it could overlap with an extremely intense election in which the president being impeached is seeking another term. But there’s a new sense of purpose among House Democrats about getting their part of the process done by Christmas, as CNN reports:

“[I]n a series of moves this week, Democrats have shown they are rapidly moving to complete the proceedings by Christmas, something that could result in Trump being just the third president to be impeached in history.

“The schedule became apparent in recent days after House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, announced that public hearings would begin next week and also suggested Thursday there’s a limit to the witnesses they would call for the public hearings.

“Plus Democrats also withdrew a subpoena of a former White House official to ensure their proceedings were not delayed by a court battle. Schiff also decided Thursday not to subpoena someone who could have been a star witness – former national security adviser John Bolton, who privately raised concerns about the Ukraine scandal at the heart of the impeachment probe. Schiff’s decision came after the former Trump aide’s counsel warned they would sue over any subpoena.”

In other words, House leaders, convinced they have enough to impeach Trump already, will take what they can get within the next few weeks but aren’t going to slow things down to cross any t’s or dot any i’s.

“Schiff has announced that three witnesses would testify next week, and Democratic lawmakers expect at least one more week of public hearings before his panel likely to follow on the week of November 18.

“The House is then scheduled to take a recess for Thanksgiving week, giving time for Schiff’s committee — along with House Oversight and House Foreign Affairs — to finish a report detailing their findings and recommendations of their investigation.

“At that point, the House Judiciary Committee would take the lead on the impeachment push — potentially in the first week of December. Democratic sources expect that committee to have a public hearing, possibly in that week, before it votes on articles of impeachment. That vote could occur in committee in the first or second week of December, the sources said.”

Presumably this timetable would accommodate a non-Ukraine-related article of impeachment or two if House Democrats decide it’s wise to include one. After all, other committees were instructed by Pelosi back in September to consider such possible articles. If, say, the obstruction of justice suggested in the Mueller Report seems actionable, most of the evidentiary work has already been done. One possible complication involves unresolved differences over federal spending that could in theory lead to another holiday partial government shutdown like the one that occurred last year just before Christmas. But it’s now looking like a stopgap spending bill will likely extend through December.

Clearly House members in both parties would like to get the impeachment monkey off their backs by year’s end, and onto the agenda of the Senate, which is contemplating a January trial of the president. Beyond that, Nancy Pelosi and her troops would love to give the vast majority of Democrats who want to see Trump removed from office the Christmas gift of getting halfway there via articles of impeachment.


November 7: Two 2020 Lessons From Virginia’s 2019

Amid the mostly-good offyear election results from earlier this week, Virginia’s stood out for me, as I wrote about at New York:

On Tuesday, Virginia Democrats regained control of both the House of Delegates and the State Senate. From one perspective, this Democratic victory seemed inevitable and uneventful. The Donkey Party made big gains in the lower House in 2017 (though a lottery drawing in a tied election went to the GOP and denied Democrats control) and performed very well in federal elections in 2018, flipping three U.S. House seats. Republicans don’t hold any statewide office, haven’t carried the state in a presidential election since 2004, haven’t won a U.S. Senate race since 2002, and have lost the last two gubernatorial contests as well.

But the results could have significant implications beyond the fact that Democrats now hold their first governing “trifecta” in the Commonwealth since 1993 and will control decennial redistricting for both the U.S. House and the state legislature.

Lest we forget, Virginia was on the short list of targets for a Trump reelection campaign determined to expand the map of battleground states beyond Florida, North Carolina, and the three Rust Belt states Trump won by an eyelash in 2016 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). That’s not looking very likely right now.

More broadly, the suburban base of the Democratic victory in Virginia means GOP losses in areas with well-educated former Republican voters we saw in 2018 may not be self-correcting via some reversion to the mean. Democrats now hold all of the state legislative seats in Northern Virginia. If such voters are about to trend back in Donald Trump’s direction — in Virginia and elsewhere — the evidence is so far lacking. And that could be a very big deal in 2020, as Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales observes:

“Tuesday’s results continued to demonstrate GOP problems in the suburbs since Trump took office. The latest was in northern Kentucky in the Cincinnati suburbs, where Bevin won in 2015 and Beshear won in 2019. Or in northern Mississippi, in the Memphis suburbs where the GOP margin in DeSoto County dropped from 61 points to 20 points, according to Ryan Matsumoto, a contributing analyst to Inside Elections. These are just the latest pieces of evidence after Democrat Dan McCready’s overperformance in the Charlotte suburbs from 2018 to the 2019 special election in North Carolina’s 9th District. It should be particularly concerning for President Trump in his efforts to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, and Texas in 2020.”

[T]he inability of Virginia’s Republicans to make the off-year elections revolve around Democratic scandals in Richmond — where the Democratic governor and attorney general were found to have appeared in blackface photos back in the day, and the Democratic lieutenant governor was accused of sexual assault by two women — is significant, too. If there was ever a circumstance in which changing the subject from Donald Trump’s issues was available, it was in the Old Dominion. It didn’t happen, and may not happen nationally despite the efforts of Republicans to refocus attention on Joe or Hunter Biden or alleged deep state conspiracies against Trump. This president may just blot out the sky with his bizarre personality and egregious misdeeds. If that’s true in 2019, it will likely still be true when he’s on the ballot next year.


November 1: Red Scare 2019

Something’s happening in the runup to the November 5 offyear elections that could represent a bad sign of Republican intentions for 2020, so I wrote about it at New York:

Often candidates and parties choose to reach out to marginal voters in their base with vein-charring messages essentially suggesting that civilization as we know it is at risk if the Other Party wins a particular election. But we are seeing signs from 2019’s off-year elections that Republicans are really going to town with claims that even mild-mannered, moderate Democrats are actually agents of sinister totalitarian forces.

That this is happening in a state like Kentucky isn’t surprising. It’s a very conservative, energy-producing state, home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a Republican-controlled legislature. The last five GOP presidential nominees have won the state by a minimum of 15 points (Donald Trump won by 29 points). So anything that promotes maximum partisan and ideological polarization, and high partisan turnout, is good for the GOP there.


October 30: Here We Go Again: Biden Denied Communion in South Carolina

I wrote about an old problem for pro-choice Catholic Democrats at New York this week:

[A] priest in South Carolina announced that he had denied Communion to Joe Biden on Sunday, according to WPDE:

“The pastor and priest of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Florence refused to give communion this past Sunday to Former Vice President and Presidential Hopeful Joe Biden …

“The church’s pastor, Rev. Robert E. Morey, released the following statement on the matter:

“’Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to Former Vice President Joe Biden. Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching. As a priest, it is my responsibility to minister to those souls entrusted to my care, and I must do so even in the most difficult situations. I will keep Mr. Biden in my prayers.'”

This isn’t a new experience for Biden: In 2008, when he was running for vice-president on a ticket with Barack Obama, the bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Biden was born, went out of his way to make it known that the then-senator would be banned from taking Communion in his diocese. The subject became a big and noisy deal in 2004 when two Catholic bishops made a similar declaration with respect to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, just the third Catholic (after Al Smith and John F. Kennedy) to head a national party ticket. There was some talk of denying 2016 Democratic veep candidate Tim Kaine access to Communion over his positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Most recently, the bishop of Springfield, Illinois, barred Communion for any of the state legislators who supported a pro-choice bill. Even where the hierarchy or individual priests have not made such abrasive statements, pro-choice Catholic pols are often encouraged quietly to stay away from the altar.

The basis of this sort of excommunication is a provision of church law, Canon 915, that those “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” Many Catholic leaders are reluctant to single out pro-choice pols for this sanction, given the strong tendency of anti-abortion pols to run afoul of Church teachings on important issues ranging from capital punishment to immigration to climate change.

Biden, of course, has gotten some heat in Democratic circles for long-ago anti-abortion views, and for a more recent position supporting the Hyde Amendment barring use of public funds for abortion services (which he finally reversed in June). His willingness to put up with harassment from the odd bishop or priest will probably make him more credible in feminist circles, though he probably won’t get into a big public fight with his Church, either. His campaign responded to questions about the South Carolina incident by calling it a “private matter.” As Biden surely knows by now, there’s not a lot of privacy on the presidential campaign trail.


October 24: Please, Ms. Clinton, Scotch This HRC 2020 Talk

Like a bad penny, the bad idea of Hillary Clinton running for president again next year keeps coming up, mostly thanks to Republican trolling, But only HRC can bring this speculation to an end, as I asked her to do at New York:

[T]he preposterous idea of Hillary Clinton seeking a rematch with Donald Trump in 2020 has mostly been a right-wing fantasy projection from people who loved the idea of beating her again (and perhaps imprisoning her in the bargain), wanted an excuse to continue their ludicrous conspiracy theories about her, or simply wanted to troll Democrats. Yes, once-upon-a-time Clinton adviser Mark Penn traded on his lost relationship with her to titillate his new conservative friends with HRC 2020 talk last year, but nobody should have taken his bad-faith word seriously. And nearly a year ago, one genuine Clinton intimate, Philippe Reines, let it be known that while it was very unlikely, there was a remote chance she might be interested in a comeback:

‘When pressed on whether she’s running, Reines told Politico: ‘It’s somewhere between highly unlikely and zero, but it’s not zero.'”

Earlier this month HRC’s name started coming up again in conjunction with probably exaggerated reports of big-money donor panic over the weak “centrist” bench in the Democratic presidential field. But the Washington Post reported that “according to two people close to her, [HRC] has not ruled out jumping in herself, a sign that she is hearing similar dissatisfaction.”

And now, in a move designed to make sure conservatives don’t forget their own HRC 2020 dream world, Reines did something to keep the speculation alive:

Now as I’ve said before, Hillary Clinton’s service to her country and her party mean she is entitled to say and do any damn thing she wants with her life and career going forward. But she of all people should grasp how very bad an idea this is, and scotch it once and for all. Yes, it’s understandable that she would want to “redo” that disastrous 2016 campaign. But that is precisely what Democrats from every faction of the party and every perspective on politics do not want to do.

In no small part that’s because we may never completely figure out how and why the Bad Man did the Bad Things and won anyway. There are so many theories, ranging from Russian interference to post-Obama racism to financial and mechanical mistakes by the Clinton campaign to her long exposure as an “Establishment” figure to revenge by the Bernie people. Personally, I think sheer complacency and protest voting (and nonvoting) by people who couldn’t imagine a monstrous figure like Trump winning were the X factor. But the fact remains that HRC cannot go back and fix one thing and make the nightmare go away, for her, for Democrats, or for America. So clearly someone else needs to pick up the banner and keep the next four years from being like the years we are living through right now.

Panicky donor whining notwithstanding, Democrats have a record number of options for doing just that. They offer a wide range of policy views, records, theories of change, personalities and identities. And while one may worry about this or that candidate underperforming during the “invisible primary,” nobody still in the race has been eliminated yet. All the leading Democratic candidates are routinely trouncing Trump in general-election trial heats; his job approval rating is perpetually stalled in an area that usually means defeat; and half the electorate wants to run him out of Washington without even waiting for the opportunity to eject him at the polls. Why are any Democrats in the sort of despair that might support a recourse to HRC?

It’s far too early for panic, but it’s probably not too early to conclude that the current field isn’t going to be displaced by some late entry. How, exactly, is Hillary Clinton supposed to win the nomination? Will she rebuild an Iowa organization even though all her old staff and supporters have moved on to other candidacies? Can she push aside Joe Biden? Would supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders really look to her for inspiration and salvation? Perhaps the idea is that the convention in Milwaukee will be deadlocked and will then turn to the 2016 nominee. How likely is that, as opposed to a coalition ticket? And if a retread somehow seems appropriate, why not John Kerry, who also narrowly lost but did not lose to Donald J. Trump?

Please, Ms. Clinton, don’t keep this right-wing fantasy in play, and don’t make admirers (like me) have to keep reciting the reasons you should not run for president in 2020. If you want to have an impact, endorse someone who is already running, or help the party in other ways. You’d done what you can to expose the terrible future Trump represents for America and its most vulnerable people. Let someone else change that future for good.


October 23: “Populist” Senator Launches Hypocritical Attack on Journalist

I’m passing along most of this piece I wrote for New York because it involves the common GOP tactic of geographical stereotyping, as deployed by a young pol thought by many to represent the future of right-wing “populism.”

Before U.S. senator Josh Hawley took exception to something he wrote and called him a “smug, rich liberal elitist” who expressed “open contempt for the people of the heartland and all we love,” I knew nothing about my friend Greg Sargent’s socioeconomic background…. As Greg explained by way of setting Hawley straight, he’s a middle-class guy educated in public schools who happens to have grown up — yes, he pleads guilty — near a coast. And he rightly accuses Hawley of deploying a phony sort of populism to make his own narrow views seem mainstream:

“[A]s Will Wilkinson notes, Hawley’s ‘great American middle’ is in reality code, an effort to recast the minoritarian America of ‘nonurban whites’ who fundamentally reject this country’s ‘multiracial, multicultural national character’ as the American mainstream.

“This ‘great American middle’ apparently does not include the large majorities who hold allegedly ‘elite’ positions such as favoring the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants and opposing further immigration restrictions.”

Now, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the effort to smear Greg if it had emanated from some Trumpian organ-grinder or a backbench Republican in Congress. But Josh Hawley is one scary dude who could become our ruler one of these days. Much celebrated for his “populist” attacks on rich corrupters of the traditional family, Hawley is the new face of a very old (and not very American) form of reactionary culture-war politics, as I noted a while back:

“Government-sanctioned culture war against private entities like those which control Hollywood and Silicon Valley is indeed a departure from traditional American conservatism. But it’s entirely consonant with a European brand of right-wing authoritarianism that drew on precapitalist strains of religion-based hostility to liberalism in economics as in culture, and contemptuously rejected modern liberal democracy while utilizing its institutions to seize power whenever possible. What makes Hawley fascinating and scary is how systematically he embraces this illiberal world view.”

Beyond that, Hawley doesn’t exactly have much standing to label other people as “elitist,” as an admiring profile in National Review explains. The son of a banker, the future senator attended an elite Jesuit prep school before matriculating at those well-known heartland universities Stanford and Yale, and then rising quickly through the top crust of legal apprenticeships, including a stint as a clerk to John Roberts. His heroes were not exactly the horny-handed sons of toil:

“One summer, Hawley interned at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. He worked for Matthew Spalding, a scholar of the Constitution. ‘He asked me who I most wanted to meet in Washington, D.C.,’ recalls Hawley. ‘I said, “George Will.” He told me to write a letter. So I did.’ Will wrote back and the two met for lunch. They also stayed in touch.”

And you know what? That’s fine with me, so long as Hawley doesn’t pretend to be some sort of prairie avenger who learned to read by candlelight. Before going after Greg, he should have reflected on the words of a certain man he is said to worship (Matthew 7:3-5, King James Version):

“3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

“4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

“5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

Beyond hypocrisy, Hawley, who is not a stupid man, is engaging in the kind of crude geographical and cultural stereotypes that ought to make him ashamed. A very wise man who represented a state adjoining Hawley’s in the U.S. Senate had this to say about that unfortunate and divisive tendency:

“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.”

All kinds of people live and work in all kinds of places, and demagogues who try to convince their constituents that Greg Sargent hates them and can’t understand them because of where he lives and works are deeply cynical. Josh Hawley isn’t what he superficially appears to be at this moment. Neither are most of us. I write for New York Magazine, live in Monterey County, California, and received an undergraduate degree from the near-Ivy private institution Emory University. Clearly, I’m a liberal coastal elitist who looks down on the sturdy heartland virtues of Josh Hawley’s Missouri. Except that I had never even met a private-school attendee before going to college on scholarships (and using savings as a janitor); speak in an accent not too far separated from Appalachia; go to church every Sunday; and spend every autumn Saturday watching college football and making barking noises when the Georgia Bulldogs are doing well. Offered a chance to take an extravagant vacation wherever I wanted on one of those big birthdays with a zero on the end, I chose the Iowa State Fair.

Like I said, people are complicated, and I hope I never judge Josh Hawley by anything other than his expressed views, which I find terrifying. But then again, Hawley is an ally and fan of the bully in the White House, the insanely rich and powerful “populist” who loves to intimidate journalists with threats that suggest roundups and reeducation camps. The junior senator from Missouri really needs to stop treating writers who disagree with him like future candidates for the knout and the rack. It’s Josh Hawley, not Greg Sargent, who holds power; he, not Greg, who’s The Man. He needs to read his Bible and learn some humility.


October 18: A Reelected Trump Would Be Really Out of Control

If you think things in the White House can’t get much worse, think again, as I argued at New York this week:

Check out this column from David Graham, who used this week’s bizarre press conference from acting White House chief of staff Mike Mulvaney to make a more general point about Team Donald Trump:

“Who knows what acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had in mind when he stepped to a lectern in the White House briefing room Thursday? (Not Trump’s legal team, apparently.) Whatever his goal, Mulvaney delivered a succinct credo for both the Trump administration and the Trump 2020 campaign.

“’I have news for everybody: Get over it,’ Mulvaney said …

“’There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy,’ Mulvaney chided reporters. ‘That is going to happen. Elections have consequences, and the foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.'”

As Graham notes, all the furor over the immediate impact of Mulvaney’s comments — which admitted a quid pro quo in Trump and his representatives’ communications with Ukrainian officials — may have obscured the fact that this is generally the White House’s attitude about everything strange or illegal or reckless this president does.

“Mulvaney’s comments weren’t just more revealing than he intended about the specifics of the Ukraine scandal. They also distilled the guiding mantra of the Trump administration. Others have tried to coin their own phrases (one senior administration official tried to make ‘We’re America, bitch’ happen, and failed), but the real Trump doctrine is ‘Get over it.’

“The administration is forcing foreign governments into quid pro quos in order to assist Trump’s political prospects? Get over it.

“It’s using the power of the presidency to financially benefit the president and his company? Get over it.

“It obstructed justice and has announced its intention to do so again? Get over it.

“It circumvented Congress’s power of the purse to begin construction of a border wall? Get over it.

“It separated children from families at the border, locking them in inhumane conditions? Get over it.

“The president is evading Senate confirmation by naming “acting” officials to top posts? Get over it.

“Russia hacked the 2016 election? Get over it.”

The prevailing message, in case you have missed it, is that having won the presidency in 2016 (by the skin of his teeth and enormous luck, of course, whether or not you believe Russia had something to do with it) everything he wants to do is mandated, and any resistance is an effort to overturn the election results — i.e., a “coup.” This would most obviously include an impeachment effort, which is designed to end Trump’s imperial reign before his full term has ended. The very unlikelihood of Trump’s initial election makes it, in his mind and that of many of his supporters, even more of a wondrous thing that should dispel all criticism of the stable genius who accomplished it — and explains all objections to his conduct as sour grapes.

That there are constitutional limits on presidential powers doesn’t enter into the equation — that’s a technical detail of interest only to his armies of lawyers who daily do battle with “activist judges” who also haven’t accepted the Historic Victory of 2016. That the Democrats who control one branch of Congress, and the media who aren’t part of his personal echo chamber, have their own constitutionally sanctioned role to play, doesn’t enter into Trumpian calculations at all. From that perspective, of course impeachment is “unconstitutional,” despite the clear language of the Constitution providing for it.

You get the sense that if, despite it all, Trump is reelected next year, the four ensuing years would take this administration down a long dark path of vindictive and even more reckless behavior. And why not? If the initial “mandate” from the electorate is regarded as virtually unlimited, a reconfirmation of his presidency after he has fully displayed his contempt for any curbs on his power and his corrupt cronyism must surely make him a colossus bestride a supine nation that has acknowledged his greatness. I don’t know if during the 2020 campaign Democrats can find a way to articulate this “you ain’t seen nothing yet” concern, or convince Americans that a vote for Trump is a vote for a much wilder and megalomanic president than they have previously seen. But if the 45th president survives both impeachment and 2020, and is in a position to enjoy fully the “consequences” of not one but two elections, the norms he might then break are beyond imagining. And Trump critics would simply have to “get over it.”


October 17: How Do You Define Trump’s Impeachable Offenses When He Won’t Stop Committing Them?

The Democratic strategy for impeachment of Donald Trump is obviously a big deal right now. I explored one aspect of the issue at New York:

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly announced an impeachment inquiry on September 24, she made it clear that the trigger for her decision, and her primary focus, was the president’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into a damaging investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden. As part of that focus, she put the principal investigation into the hands of Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff instead of the traditional impeachment forum of the Judiciary Committee. But at the same time, she did not foreclose the possibility of additional articles of impeachment; even before her public announcement, she asked the chairs of all the committees investigating Trump to prepare to “send Nadler their best cases for impeachment,” as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti reported. The idea was that the Judiciary would draft the formal article or articles of impeachment, even if the charge the House chose to pursue was a simple matter of a Ukraine quid pro quo aimed at Joe Biden.

At that time, understandably, the many House Democrats (and their even more numerous progressive allies in the opinion biz) who had been fruitlessly agitating for the impeachment of Trump before the Ukraine story came out were upset about the idea of a narrow impeachment inquiry. What about the Mueller Report? What about the obstruction of justice evidence Mueller invited Congress to use in an impeachment proceeding? Would a narrow focus on Ukraine implicitly exonerate Trump on matters not related to that incident, or encourage him to do bad things in the future? And given the extremely high odds that the Senate would refuse to remove Trump from office on narrow or multiple articles, should Democrats throw everything they have at Trump to damage his 2020 reelection prospects?

But Trump himself is now complicating the strategic calculation, just as he did by beginning his campaign to get Ukraine to destroy Biden even as Democrats were still debating what to do with Mueller’s report flowing from Trump’s behavior toward Russia. The man just won’t stop committing impeachable offenses. And worse yet, his most egregious impeachable offenses are aimed at frustrating the Ukraine investigation, and Schiff is among many Democrats pointing this out, as the Washington Post reported last week:

“The impeachment inquiry is having a hard time getting central players to even talk, and on Tuesday, the White House said it wouldn’t cooperate with the impeachment inquiry in any way.

“Democrats are saying all this amounts to obstruction and are hinting strongly at what the House can do to get around this: impeach Trump for blocking the investigation.

“’The failure to produce this witness [diplomat Gordon Sondland], the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additionally strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a coequal branch of government,’ said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who has become the face of the investigation, on Tuesday.”

Obstructing a congressional investigation of the Executive branch, particularly if it involves potentially impeachable offenses, is a well-acknowledged impeachable offense in itself, as my colleague Jonathan Chait observed in making “obstruction of Congress” a whole category in his menu of “high crimes and misdemeanors” Trump has committed:

“The Executive branch and Congress are co-equal, each intended to guard against usurpation of authority by the other. Trump has refused to acknowledge any legitimate oversight function of Congress, insisting that because Congress has political motivations, it is disqualified from it. His actions and rationale strike at the Constitution’s design of using the political ambitions of the elected branches to check one another.”

This is hardly a novel concept. One of the three articles of impeachment the House Judiciary Committee approved in 1974, which triggered Richard Nixon’s resignation, involved similar but arguably less comprehensive efforts by the Tricky One to obstruct Congress:

“[Nixon] failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas. The subpoenaed papers and things were deemed necessary by the Committee in order to resolve by direct evidence fundamental, factual questions relating to Presidential direction, knowledge or approval of actions demonstrated by other evidence to be substantial grounds for impeachment of the President. In refusing to produce these papers and things Richard M. Nixon, substituting his judgment as to what materials were necessary for the inquiry, interposed the powers of the Presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives, thereby assuming to himself functions and judgments necessary to the exercise of the sole power of impeachment vested by the Constitution in the House of Representatives.”

Nixon, moreover, didn’t try to incite violence against his congressional tormentors as Trump has repeatedly done.

You could certainly make the case that an article of impeachment involving “obstruction of Congress” with respect to the Ukraine scandal is a natural sidebar to an article on the scandal itself, in that it strengthens public perceptions that far worse presidential behavior probably occurred but cannot be documented. But there are bigger questions about public perceptions. Yes, it’s clear under the Constitution and any reasonable interpretation of the Founders’ intent that “high crimes and misdemeanors” do not require violation of criminal statutes. Indeed, the kind of misconduct that cannot be addressed by the criminal-justice system is precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind in providing for impeachment. But does the public understand that, and if so, does it accept it? The Ukraine scandal clearly involves conduct most people would consider criminal (particularly if it’s explained as a violation of campaign-finance laws, including those aimed at preventing foreigners from being involved in U.S. elections). Obstructing Congress? Maybe not so much, particularly since Congress’s job approval ratings are significantly worse than Trump’s (21 percent, according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average).

While what to do with Trump’s obstruction of Congress is one question House Democrats must face before pursuing a Ukraine-only impeachment strategy, it’s not the only one. Other examples of impeachable conduct keep popping up, as the Washington Post observed over the weekend:

“Within a one-day span, The Washington Post reported that  Trump sought to enlist then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the fall of 2017 to stop the prosecution of a Turkish Iranian gold trader represented by Rudolph W. Giuliani. The former New York mayor is Trump’s personal attorney.

“The Financial Times reported that Michael Pillsbury, one of Trump’s China advisers, said he had received potentially negative information on Hunter Biden during a visit to Beijing.”

What do you do when the target of (to use the criminal-justice analogy) a prosecution won’t stop doing crimes for long enough to pin down an indictment?

“’We’re basically getting like three new impeachable offenses a day, so it suggests that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg on what’s happening,’ said Daniel Pfeiffer, a former Obama strategist who hosts ‘Pod Save America’ and who has been pushing Democrats to expand their probes.”

Toss in the unacted-upon Mueller findings, and whatever fresh hell may come up from past, present, and future Trumpian misconduct, and you can see that when the deal finally goes down, House Democrats will have a tough decision to make, whatever Pelosi originally intended.


October 11: Trump Alienates Evangelical Supporters With Syria Policy

There was a lot of attention given in the media to GOP heartburn about Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria. But there was another angle that I wrote up at New York:

No one should have been surprised by the fury that arose in congressional Republican circles over the president’s green light to his fellow authoritarian, Recep Erdogan, for a Turkish invasion of Syria. Most of them, after all, have never bought into Trump’s particular Jacksonian mix of militaristic bluster and non-interventionism, reflected in his alternating desires to get U.S. troops out of Syria or deploy them to kill everything that moves. Traditional Republicans, moreover, feel a strong sense of attachment to the Kurds, U.S. allies in the Iraq War (which Trump considers a disaster pursued by losers) and the fight against ISIS (which Trump considers his own personal triumph, not to be shared with foreigners). The most unexpected thing, indeed, is that Trump chose to infuriate Republicans just when he needs them most in the battle against impeachment and the 2020 election. This is not the sort of statement he needs right now from the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham:

“Graham, who has been one of President Trump’s strongest allies in the Senate, on Wednesday said Kurdish fighters in Syria had been ‘shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration’ in its sudden decision to pull U.S. troops from northern Syria, leaving America’s longtime allies in the fight against the Islamic State group exposed to an attack by Turkey.

“’I hope he’s right — I don’t think so. I know that every military person has told him don’t do this,’ Graham said in an appearance on ‘Fox & Friends. “If he follows through with this, it’d be the biggest mistake of his presidency.”

But if old-school neoconservative hawkishness explains part of the bad reaction Trump got for his invitation to Erdogan, there’s a separate reason that leaders representing another important slice of the MAGA coalition. Conservative Evangelicals have rebelled — some even more angrily than Graham — including the ancient Christian Right warhorse, Pat Robertson, as the Washington Post reports: