House Democrats will be hesitant to use their newly regained majority to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump unless investigations uncover such major misdeeds that even Republicans would support the effort.
A vocal portion of House Democrats still are expected to call for Trump’s impeachment over allegations he has misused the office or committed crimes, and dozens backed an effort to force the House to consider articles of impeachment within the past year.
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But key Democrats did not support that effort and have made only cautious comments when talking about the subject. They include Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the expected chairman of the House Judiciary Committee where the impeachment process would begin, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other party leaders.
“I think there’s some idea out there that impeachment is on the top of the agenda and this is something Democrats want to run with,” said John Hudak, a Brookings Institution fellow who has written about the topic. “I don’t think that’s the case.”
Margaret Tseng, a history and politics professor at Marymount University and author of “The Politics of Impeachment,” said it “is very unlikely Democrats would pursue something of that nature, even if they take control of the House.”
Here are three reasons Democrats would be reluctant to start impeachment proceedings against Trump:
It won’t succeed
House Democrats could impeach Trump, but two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote to remove him from office and there’s really no path to getting there with what is known about Trump today, Hudak said.
Depending on how many Democrats are in the Senate next term, about 18 Republicans would have to risk their political futures to remove a president who is popular among their party base and has criticized members of Congress from his own party.
Hudak said the political argument would be difficult, short of a bombshell from a congressional investigation or from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III — such as finding impeachable crimes in his probe into connections between Russian operatives and the president’s 2016 campaign.
Tseng agreed. “You’re talking about actual Republicans having to cross over the aisle and say, ‘We think these are impeachable offenses,’ ” she said.
That’s something Nadler himself has cautioned against when asked about impeachment, saying that you shouldn’t remove a president from office unless you get “an appreciable fraction” of Trump voters to agree that Democrats had to do it.
“If evidence arises that is of sufficient gravity to justify impeaching the president, and of sufficient persuasiveness to persuade people, at least by the end of the process, some of the people who voted on the other side, then you consider an impeachment, but not before,” Nadler said in a February appearance on MSNBC.
And even if Democrats could successfully remove Trump from office, they would face a President Mike Pence who would not have much different policy preferences than Trump. “What does that really do for you? Not that much,” Hudak said.
It’s a distraction
An impeachment effort would be a huge deal that would sap attention and resources from the other oversight investigations into the Trump administration that Democrats could use as a platform for the bigger prize of retaking the White House in 2020, Hudak and Tseng said.
“It would be smart for them to actually think about an agenda they could promote instead of being anti-Trump,” Tseng said.
Short of an obvious and clear violation of laws and violation of constitutional duties that would compel them to act, Democrats “can get a better bang for their buck elsewhere on their investigations,” Hudak said.
If Democrats want to highlight the incompetence and corruption they perceive in the Trump administration, then they can push investigation after investigation. That can be a more powerful narrative heading into the 2020 presidential elections than a failed impeachment effort, Hudak said.
It’s politically risky
An impeachment effort could risk appearing like a party that’s more intent on opposing Trump than improving or changing policies. And the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 actually led to higher job approval ratings for the president.
“It seemed to fly in the face of what the public wanted,” Tseng said. “And the lesson would be, ‘Is this something we want to pursue because this would be a reflection of us as a party, especially ahead of a presidential election?’ ”
Pelosi recognizes that being perceived as overreaching on impeachment could hurt Democrats, even as it stirs the base of both political parties, Hudak said.
The question for Pelosi “is not whether Democrats want her to move forward with impeachment, it’s whether independents want her to move forward with impeachment,” Hudak said.