“Legal blows fuel impeachment fears” declared Politico in a headline on Tuesday, after news broke that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen had entered a guilty plea and a jury had convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on eight counts of various financial crimes. The story featured three Republicans (and no Democrats) speculating about the possibility of Democrats impeaching President Trump if they win control of the House in November. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested that impeachment is, “the only message they seem to have going into the midterms,” referring to congressional Democrats. Even Trump himself appears to have impeachment on the mind.
Here’s the thing: If the Democrats are planning to impeach Trump if they win control of the House, they are doing a really great job of hiding it. Congressional Democrats aren’t talking about impeachment.
On Wednesday, for example, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a leading candidate for speaker of the House if Democrats win control, again all but ruled out an impeachment push, saying that Democrats would use congressional power to oversee the Trump administration and make sure the president does not interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, where any impeachment resolutions would likely be introduced, spent Wednesday pushing a bill he sponsored that would make it harder for Trump to fire Mueller. Nadler has suggested that the party will only pursue impeachment if they think they can get the 67 Senate votes they’d need to remove Trump from office — a very high bar, since that would mean something like 17 Senate Republicans would agree to vote out a Republican president.
And it’s not just Democratic leaders who aren’t talking about impeachment. As part of FiveThirtyEight’s project looking at what types of Democrats are doing well in primaries for Senate, House and governor this year, we looked at the campaign website for each of the 811 people who, as of Aug. 7, had appeared on the ballot in Democratic primaries for races with no Democratic incumbent. Only one candidate (Nate Kleinman, running for a House seat in New Jersey) featured a call for impeaching Trump on his website. And he lost his primary, getting just 9 percent of the vote in a four-way race.1 And the latest Cohen and Manafort developments haven’t seemed to bring a surge of calls for impeachment, either. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the party’s nominee in a very Democratic-leaning House district in New York City and a new hero of the left wing of the Democratic Party, has sent out several tweets since the news about Cohen and Manafort — none of which mentioned impeachment.
Let me not overstate my case: There is some support among congressional Democrats for impeaching Trump. In a vote in December, 58 House Democrats signaled their support for impeachment by opposing a move to table an impeachment resolution that was written by Rep. Al Green of Texas. But 126 Democrats (along with 238 Republicans) voted to scrap that resolution. This January, another impeachment push from Green got support from 66 Democrats, with more than 60 percent of Democrats in the House opposing it.
I’m a bit surprised that impeachment has not gained more traction among Democrats. In an article in March, I described how Democrats could (perhaps accidentally) find themselves on the path to impeachment, despite Pelosi’s reluctance, if:
- They won the House.
- The majority of House Democrats were pro-impeachment.
- They had a pro-impeachment speaker (meaning that if the speaker was Pelosi, she’d be forced to favor impeachment to keep the speakership).
- And Trump had committed impeachment-worthy offenses.
No. 1 has a good chance of happening (see our House forecast). Nadler hinted yesterday that the Justice Department has grounds (though perhaps not the power) to indict Trump for his role in the payoffs that Cohen pleaded guilty to, so I think top congressional Democrats now feel they might have a solid reason to impeach Trump — which means their reluctance is probably more about the Senate than anything else.
But our data suggests that a Democratic majority in the House in 2019 is unlikely to include a lot of new members who campaigned on impeachment and are clamoring to try to push Trump out of office.
Would Democrats downplay impeachment during the campaign and then flip to aggressively pursue it once they had control? I doubt it. (Unless new information about Trump’s activities comes out and is deemed impeachment-worthy, of course.) Remember, the perception that politicians don’t at least try to follow through on their promises is wrong. In 2006, when some on the left were saying that George W. Bush should be impeached for, among other things, taking the U.S. to war under false pretenses, Pelosi, as the House Democratic leader, promised there would be no impeachment push if Democrats won control of the House. And there was not.
In fact, the last time a party made a truly serious effort to impeach a president, everyone had advance warning. In October 1998, Republicans in the House, where they had a majority, successfully pushed through a resolution authorizing the start of an impeachment investigation into President Bill Clinton. The GOP kept control of the House that November — and impeached Clinton a month later.
There is one way to square what Huckabee Sanders and the Republicans are saying — that the midterms are a referendum on impeachment — with the words of Pelosi and the Democrats, that they don’t plan to impeach as things currently stand: if Trump decides to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. If the only way for Trump to exonerate himself from the Russia investigation is to end it, he might. And Nadler’s moves to protect the special counsel legislatively suggest that firing Mueller would be a kind of red line for Democrats. Absent that kind of maneuver, or new evidence coming to light of, say, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin personally planning the release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff, the talk of impeachment looks more like a Republican strategy to excite the party’s base ahead of the November elections than a realistic assessment of what will happen next January.