White House

The Four Truths of Impeachment

It wouldn't be a "coup." It requires persuasion. It's not impossible. It would take time for minds to change.

Clinton impeachment trial, 1999.

Photographer: Getty Images

Rush Limbaugh says we are witnessing “a silent coup.” The radio host has sometimes been accused of rhetorical excess, but his claim is based on a demonstrable truth.

Many of President Donald Trump’s critics would indeed like “to get rid of him,” as Limbaugh says. A large majority of Democratic voters wants impeachment -- wanted it, in fact, well before the revelation that senior Trump campaign personnel decided to "take a meeting" after being promised Russian support in taking down Hillary Clinton.

Limbaugh even understates the case. He says that “nobody is actually expressing this desire verbally.” He should read the liberals in my Twitter feed. Or listen to the two Democratic congressmen who this week filed an article of impeachment. Representative Maxine Waters of California has also called for impeachment.

That’s a far-off prospect. But even if the debate is only beginning, we can already see its main points of contention. We can also see that each side is skirting two truths about impeachment it finds unpalatable.

It wouldn’t be “a coup.” The Constitution’s provisions for impeaching and removing a president from office require a very high degree of public support. The process would have to enjoy the support of a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. It is vanishingly unlikely that Mike Pence would become president this way unless a very large majority of Americans wanted it.

In the last 30 years, the highest percentage of the vote any presidential candidate has gotten was George H. W. Bush’s 53.4 percent in 1988. That level of consensus -- the most we have attained in decades -- would not be enough to secure Trump’s removal. Support for his ouster would have to be much broader than that. Without very broad support, any attempt to dethrone Trump would fail -- just as the attempt to remove Bill Clinton for perjury did.

It follows that if Congress removes Trump from power, it will be impossible to make a plausible case that a minority or even a bare majority of the country had abused its power.

It requires persuasion. It further follows that this consensus for removing the president would have to include many people who voted for him and who are supporting him still. For Trump to be removed from office, that is, a significant number of his supporters would have to become convinced that he has done something that shows him to be unfit for the presidency.

Does it seem to you that advocates of impeachment are acting as though they have to bring Trump supporters around? Or that they prefer to vilify and demean them?

It’s not impossible. Some of the president’s foes say that partisanship is too strong and Trump’s supporters too committed to their man to turn on him. They agree, that is, with Trump’s joke during the campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his voters.

But there were many reluctant Trump voters. And even today, people change their minds. Columbia County, Wisconsin, voted for Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It also voted for Republican Scott Walker for governor in 2010, and Democrat Tammy Baldwin for senator in 2012. It backed Ron Johnson over Russ Feingold in the 2010 Senate race, and then Feingold over Johnson in 2016. It would hardly be shocking if a chunk of Trump’s voters there, and elsewhere, defected.

Trump’s support would not have to disappear altogether. Half of Republicans stuck with Richard Nixon all the way to the helicopter. But right now roughly 85 percent of Republicans are with Trump, and that number would have to fall.

It would take time for minds to change. Compared with Nixon’s day, we have stronger partisanship -- especially negative partisanship, which is to say hostility to the other party. Republicans are less inclined today than they were then to trust the media, meaning that even if Trump is truly guilty of misconduct, reports of it will be initially discounted. And it’s human nature to resist believing the worst about someone you voted for just a few months ago.

Of course, most Trump supporters might stick with him, or even see their numbers increase, in which cases the preconditions for impeachment will not materialize. The course of the economy will help determine which scenario takes place.

So will the course of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. If he uncovers serious wrongdoing, or has already uncovered it, the eventual release of that information could slowly change the mind of soft Trump supporters, and soften hard ones. But that is an “if,” not a “when.”

That may be a truth unpalatable to people who have made up their minds on both sides of our burgeoning impeachment debate: Its outcome is going to depend on facts we don’t have yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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