ANALYSIS — Does President Donald Trump actually want to be impeached by House Democrats? Many of them think so, citing his aggressive and defiant behavior. He says he doesn’t.
“I don’t think anybody wants to be impeached,” Trump said Thursday during another wild, impromptu Q&A session with reporters. But that comment came after he ignored subpoenas, harshly criticized House Democrats and blocked attempts to perform oversight — which, in turn, followed a slew of legally and ethically questionable actions laid out by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Collectively, Trump’s words and deeds beg the question: If he did want to get impeached, what would he be doing that he’s not doing now?
Connecting the dots
His actions and statements last week, before he departed on a four-day trip to Asia that ended Tuesday, offer examples of a chief executive wagging his finger at a House controlled by an opposition party that holds the key that might unlock impeachment proceedings.
With the administration’s full legal support, the White House’s former top lawyer, Don McGahn, ignored a congressional subpoena to testify about his role in a list of Trump actions, including some that led Mueller to note in his final report that he could not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice.
Trump abruptly walked out of a White House meeting with top Democratic lawmakers, pulling the plug on a possible infrastructure plan — and all other major legislative initiatives — until the Democrats drop or conclude their investigations of his personal finances and 2016 campaign.
And two federal courts upheld congressional subpoenas that the president’s private legal team had tried to knock down. Then there is Trump constantly mocking and taking shots at Democrats, even dubbing Speaker Nancy Pelosi “Crazy Nancy” and cryptically suggesting she’s “not the same” as just a few years back.
White House and presidential experts interviewed for this story identified some actions Trump might take if he did want to be impeached. But that assumes he really doesn’t want to be — and sees no political benefit to becoming only the third U.S. president to be impeached, after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. (Richard Nixon resigned facing almost certain impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate.)
“When he says he does not want to be impeached, I think that’s utterly counterfactual to what he really wants,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
A 2020 boost
G. William Hoagland, who was an aide to former GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, said it appears Trump “knows” impeachment brings little risk of ending his presidency because Republicans control the Senate and have shown no willingness to vote to remove him from office should the House pass articles of impeachment that set up a Senate trial. In fact, Hoagland and others say that might be the major X-factor that would extend Trump’s political career.
“The best thing Trump could do to … increase his chances of re-election would be to have the Democratic House impeach him,” said Hoagland, now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
A White House official declined to comment on whether the president and his team see a political benefit in impeachment. But on Friday, Trump tweeted a quote from South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said an attempt to impeach Trump “will end up getting him re-elected.”
“If they try to Impeach President Trump, who has done nothing wrong (No Collusion), they will end up getting him re-elected” @LindseyGrahamSC Impeachment is for High Crimes and Misdemeanors. There were no High Crimes and Misdemeanors, except for those committed by the other side!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 24, 2019
Impeachment would allow Trump to paint Democrats as orchestrating a “coup” to take him down — a word he is already using at campaign rallies and official events. It would fire up his base for a 2020 election that experts of all political stripes say will come down to turnout in a handful of battleground states.
What many describe as the president’s best path to joining Johnson and Clinton is simply continuing his recent trend of aggressive acts and statements about Congress.
“I just don’t think it would look that much different if he said he did want to be impeached,” Perry said. “If he didn’t want to be impeached, he would be very careful in what he says and what the White House does. But he’s not being careful. So just continuing that might be enough for Pelosi to eventually start the process.”
Pushing the speaker
Pelosi has said the House would continue to investigate, but has tamped down talk of beginning an impeachment inquiry. That may be to avoid any political fallout for new members who helped Democrats regain the majority by winning swing districts where impeachment is not a priority for voters.
Trump could opt to repeat his hard-line tactics stemming from his 2016 campaign promise to build a southern border wall to, in Pelosi’s word, “goad” House Democrats toward impeachment proceedings.
“What he is doing now — violating Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution by spending money not appropriated for the wall [on that project], snubbing all subpoenas from Congress, declassifying classified information to have [Attorney General William] Barr carry out his internal investigation of the [Mueller probe], giving top secret clearances to family members who have not passed clearance,” might eventually cause Democrats to impeach him, Hoagland said.
One source, granted anonymity to be candid, said the president could issue an order mandating that no administration official — Cabinet-level or below — should appear before any House or Senate committee for testimony, even about routine matters, until Democrats cease their investigations of all things Trump.
Even as confrontations over the Mueller report and other probes continued, members of the administration have appeared at House hearings. In the past month alone, hearings have featured Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, along with many more junior officials who testified on issues ranging from animal pest disease prevention to missile defense.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said Trump could also provoke a response by spending taxpayers’ dollars without regard for how Congress ordered, in law, that the money be spent.
“They take the power of the purse very seriously,” Bannon said.
He added that Trump “could order his administration to stop responding to any document request from Congress — even about the most basic things. … I expect him to keeping pushing and pushing and pushing just like he has been.”
A few prominent Democrats agree.
“I am not sure that this president may not want to be impeached. He may think that it works for him politically,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 presidential contender, told CNN last week.
And here’s what Pelosi’s reportedly said at a caucus meeting last week: “He wants to be impeached so he can be exonerated by the Senate. … His actions are villainous to the Constitution of the United States.”
Hoagland offered a lighthearted — if rather dark — idea for what might push Pelosi to give in to some of her most progressive members’ calls for impeachment.
“I guess if he did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, as he claimed he could do during the campaign,” Hoagland said, “maybe that would be an additional step he could take to get impeached.”