Impeaching the president: At what cost, and by what method?

Impeaching the president: At what cost, and by what method?
© Greg Nash

Despite Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesDemocrats debate how and when to get House back in action Democrats get assurances from Cuccinelli on immigrants, coronavirus care Gaetz wears gas mask on House floor during vote on bill to fight coronavirus MORE (D-Conn.) publicly announcing his support for an impeachment inquiry against President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump anti-reg push likely to end up in court Biden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel MORE, a large majority of House Democrats still oppose the effort, including (most importantly) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). The slow drip of advancing support might be enough to break the roadblock before the summer’s over. But at what cost? And by what method? 

The costs seem clear at first glance. Some are quick to point out that President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Blair questions Trump approach to coronavirus pandemic Has Justice Department partisanship finally hit a wall?  MORE enjoyed a massive approval ratings bump as a result of his impeachment trials in 1998 and 1999. The assumption goes, “If you impeach Trump, you’re handing him victory in 2020.” Some House Democrats conceivably have taken the bait, not wanting to politically damage themselves and help Trump when there’s no conceivable way the Republican-led Senate would convict him.

But the costs of impeachment are far more complicated, and given where public opinion is today, in all likelihood it would not benefit Trump or the Republican Party.


Because in the five months after Clinton’s approval spiked to a record 73 percent on December 20 — which was the day after the GOP-led House impeached him — his support dipped to as low as 53 percent. More broadly, in Gallup’s 19 public opinion surveys about Clinton in 1997 (the calendar year before his affair with Monica Lewinsky was made public), an average of 58 percent of respondents approved of the president, while an average of 33 percent disapproved: a 25-point approval gap. In his final year in office (2000), Clinton’s approval gap was 24 points (60 percent approval vs. 36 percent disapproval). No bump there. 

And so Democrats weighing whether to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump should not confuse Clinton’s relative end-of-tenure popularity as an “impeachment bounce.” The president appeared otherwise capable. The economy appeared strong. Many who defended him before 1998 continued to post-impeachment, and many who opposed him before 1998 continued to post-impeachment. 

Additionally, public approval for Congress held relatively steady in the low 40’s (with the occasional spike) in the nine months after impeachment, and then jumped into the high 40’s during the heat of the 2000 election. Both chambers were controlled by Republicans. Had the public resoundingly rejected what they did, there would have been a sustained backlash in the polls.

And that’s a key takeaway. Republicans’ impeachment of Clinton rallied their base while partially fracturing Democrats. In the 2000 presidential election, GOP candidate George W. Bush’s pledged to “restore honor and dignity” while challenging Democrat Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreMelania Trump to appear on CNN coronavirus town hall Thursday night Respect your Elders — a call to action Klobuchar and Harris could bolster Biden in the Midwest MORE to call out Clinton’s personal and legal failings. It was a brilliant ploy, and one could argue it proved to be the difference in Bush’s razor-thin victory in Florida, as Gore was unable to devise a compelling response. In the end, Gore earned only 63 percent support from voters who approved of Clinton’s job performance, but disapproved of him as a person

What about the method of impeachment? How can Democrats turn this assuredly political spectacle (with virtually no chance of conviction) into a political advantage? 


One of the two main issues impeachment supporters wish to investigate—alleged obstruction of justice by the president — primarily would be an intellectual exercise. Granted, it might be entirely justified by what’s contained in the Mueller Report. But it’s laden with technicalities, and it’s tough to sway the American people with technicalities. 

The other main issue — collusion with the Russian government — would be a Hail Mary of sorts. Yes, there is plenty of evidence of the Trump campaign engaging with, and seeking help from, Russian officials close to President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinAmerica's post-COVID-19 foreign policy House Democrats object to Trump sending ventilators to Russia Overnight Defense: Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty | Pentagon drops ban on recruits who had virus | FBI says Corpus Christi shooting terror-related MORE. But how much new information will a House-led trial reveal? Again, while Democrats might be entirely justified pursuing this path, they’d risk being seen as rehashing the obvious, or potentially losing in the courts while trying to compel witnesses to speak. Constitutionally grounded ineffectiveness is still just ineffectiveness, and that’s no recipe for political success. 

Yet there’s a third approach Democrats might consider, and it likely would have the most significant impact on the 2020 elections. 

Three years ago, Harvard Professor Jennifer Lerner hit the nail on the head: “Anger is the primary emotion of justice.”

There remains palpable anger in this country on both sides of the political spectrum. But as the 2018 midterms showed, Democrats apparently have more to be angry about, and that hasn’t changed nearly a year later. A month before the midterms, the Senate confirmed Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughStakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff Juan Williams: Justice Thomas seizes his moment in the Trump era Judge in Flynn case hires high-profile attorney to help with response to appeals court: report MORE to the Supreme Court. 

A poll immediately afterward revealed that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation versus only 41 percent who approved. Many Americans — including those personally impacted by sexual assault — were outraged. It galvanized Democrats and others already angry after two years of Trump, and the following month they turned out in record numbers for House Democrats. 

Obstruction of justice won’t drive record numbers. Neither will Russian collusion. A comprehensive investigation into Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct toward more than a dozen women will. And unlike with obstruction and collusion, many accusers likely would be willing and able to testify. 

As to whether a president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors” before taking office, some legal experts believe there is “no clear-cut answer [to] whether a federal official can be impeached for past wrongs.”

Congress investigating Trump’s alleged crimes against women is not a novel concept. In the aftermath of E. Jean Carroll recently alleging that Trump raped her in the 1990’s, several presidential candidates said Congress should consider investigating Carroll’s claims, including Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden set to make risky economic argument against Trump Hillicon Valley: Tech companies lead way on WFH forever | States and counties plead for cybersecurity assistance | Trump weighing anti-conservative bias panel What does Joe Biden believe about NASA, space exploration and commercial space? MORE and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerStakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff It's as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process Booker introduces bill to create 'DemocracyCorps' for elections MORE (D-N.J.). 

So House Democrats have some tough decisions ahead. Before their pro-impeachment numbers swell to the point of no return, they better figure out what the hell they want to investigate. And for their sake, it must strike a hyper-personal, hyper-emotional chord with Americans.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.