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Defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 Election is Better for the Nation than Impeaching Him

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I want to be on record with my view that although Donald Trump amply deserves to be thrown out of office by an impeachment process, pursuing impeachment is unwise not only for the Democratic Party, but for the nation. To articulate my view I will simply second what Jonathan Bernstein, Peggy Noonan and Benjamin Wittes say in the article

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Defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 Election is Better for the Nation than Impeaching Him
Defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 Election is Better for the Nation than Impeaching Him
Defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 Election is Better for the Nation than Impeaching Him

I want to be on record with my view that although Donald Trump amply deserves to be thrown out of office by an impeachment process, pursuing impeachment is unwise not only for the Democratic Party, but for the nation. To articulate my view I will simply second what Jonathan Bernstein, Peggy Noonan and Benjamin Wittes say in the article above.

On judgments of the gravity of specific actions by Donald, the article by Benjamin Wittes, “Five Things I Learned from the Mueller Report” is excellent. I won’t try to retail what he says in detail, only recommend that you read what he says.

For an overall judgment, let me quote Peggy Noonan: this is both behind a paywall and is a judgment by someone whose GOP bona fides are difficult to question, let me quote Peggy Noonan:

And so a closing word on the Mueller report. I have thought since the beginning that appointing a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election was right and justified; that Robert Mueller was an excellent choice because of his experience and integrity. Also his age and stage. He was a patriot looking to finish a distinguished career with integrity. He hired killers, tough lawyers and investigators who were hunting the whale and intended to harpoon it. They did everything they could to get the story. What they produced is a more dreadful portrait of Mr. Trump than his supporters will know, because most Americans won’t read it. …

Should the Democrats move to impeach? No, not for reasons of merit but of national interest.

Peggy’s last pair of sentences is convoluted, so let me parse it carefully. She asks, should the Democrats move to impeach. Then she say, no the shouldn’t move to impeach because of national interest, but that it cannot be said that an impeachment would not be warranted on the merits. By implication, her view is that impeachment would be justified on the merits, or at least that a view that impeachment is merited is quite a reasonable view.

To back up her claim that impeachment is against the national interest, Peggy says that many people would see it (perhaps wrongly) as an effort to overturn election results. And since the next election is close, it is better to limit the bad effects of those 2016 election results by means of the 2020 election than by impeachment:

It is 2019. We elect a president in 2020.

On the wisdom of impeachment, Jonathan Bernstein makes the point that impeachment could actually get in the way of highlighting questionable things that Donald does. First, he lays out what he is arguing for:

Yes, there’s a good case — a very good case — an extremely good case — that Trump has acted contrary to his oath of office and deserves impeachment and removal. … But for now at least, Republicans are not going to vote for impeachment, and so we’re talking about a partisan impeachment and a partisan acquittal.

That’s a path that has no advantages for Democrats before, during or after impeachment.

Here are his arguments to back that up:

  • … what matters at this stage is whether Democrats can find ways to publicize Trump’s malfeasance, in hopes of both hurting Trump’s popularity and of finding new allies among any weak Trump supporters among congressional Republicans.

    One reason that doing that in the context of impeachment is harder is that it makes some potentially unpopular Trump actions irrelevant — that is, if they aren’t specifically among the impeachment charges.

  • Impeachment also creates a framing of the question that makes it easier for Republicans to remain unified, and may even lose support among some neutral outside opinion leaders. It immediately changes the overriding question from whether Trump (and others within his campaign and his administration) behaved well or badly in any actions the Democrats choose to publicize — a framing which may make it difficult for people to stick with Trump — to the question of whether actions are worthy of removal.

  • The Senate, and not the House, would set the rules under which a trial was held … A Senate trial of Donald Trump might well wind up dominated by Republican conspiracy theories about the Department of Justice and the FBI, supported by “evidence” from witnesses selected by the president’s lawyers, with rules for questioning that tilt strongly toward Trump and the Republicans.

  • … after a party-line vote to acquit? Trump would surely take that as an indicator that he could continue with every one of his assaults on the rule of law and the Constitution, not only safe from an implausible second impeachment, but with the assurance that the Senate had certified all his actions to date as perfectly acceptable. 

  • Even continued oversight hearings on any Trump abuse up through the impeachment would be difficult to justify after bringing him to trial and losing.

  • It’s true that failing to use the congressional power of impeachment under current conditions would reveal it to be a very weak power indeed. But very weak isn’t the same thing as totally useless. Keeping the threat of it alive, even if it’s not much of a threat, is still better than removing it as an option altogether, which would be the case following a partisan impeachment and acquittal.

  • … impeachment is no magic pill that achieves anything just by invoking it. The fight for the Constitution and the rule of law is the correct fight for the House to take up, but so far impeachment just isn’t the right weapon to be using.

Besides continuing to shine a light on Donald’s bad behavior, another component to an alternative to impeachment is prosecution after Donald leaves office. If this option is pursued, it should be made clear that it is being pursued because of especially egregious actions on Donald’s part, because in general prosecution of presidents after they leave office is a bad precedent. Even if in the US a president would have to leave office even if he had a deep fear of being thrown in jail afterwards, in many countries a fear of being thrown in jail if one leaves office is a potent incentive to hang on to power at all costs, damn the constitution. And in the future, good people who know that as president they will have to make hard, controversial decisions might choose not to run for president because they fear they would be prosecuted for some of those hard, controversial decisions after they left office. And finally, the prosecution of ex-presidents is a sure ticket to even greater political polarization.

Barring an escalation of malfeasance that leads a score of Republican senators to turn decisively against Donald, the feasible, safe and powerful penalty for Donald is to be defeated in his bid for reelection. I do not mean this in a partisan way. It would be wonderful if Donald were defeated in the Republican primaries; any Democrat who loves their country should breathe a big sigh of relief along with me in that unlikely event, to know that Donald would not continue to lead this country for another four years, whatever happened in the general election.

In closing, let me distinguish between policy disagreements and even moral disagreements I have with Donald and what we are talking about here. I think trade wars are unwise, and treating noncitizens as less then full human beings as immoral. But it is Donald’s treating the written and unwritten guardrails of that hold our political system with disrespect that is the most dangerous aspect of his behavior. Trade wars and mistreating human beings are great evils now. But a fraying of our political system could lead to even worse evils later.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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