Last weekend, a smart friend of mine raised an interesting question: Would political opponents of Donald Trump rather see him removed from office via impeachment and conviction, or would we rather see him voted out of office in 2020?
The question has the makings of a parlor game that could occupy the passions of anti-Trump Americans for months. Strong cases can be made for both sides of the argument. I come down on the side of the ballot box, and firmly so, because it has more historical authority and legitimacy — and for one other reason that I’ll reveal in a bit.
The impeachment side of the argument, though, isn’t to be dismissed out of hand. It’s true that impeachment is a political process, and getting enough Republicans to support removing a president from their party would take a formidable list of offenses.
But to a lot of us, the list is already quite formidable — Mr. Trump has, by any common-sense definition, obstructed justice repeatedly in public. Many House Democrats are raring to go with what they have; Representative Brad Sherman of California has already introduced his own articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump.
And there is likely to be much more. For the moment, let’s presume that several months from now, Robert Mueller has given us evidence of obstruction, cooperation with Russians during the 2016 campaign and compelling evidence that Russian banks on some level “own” Mr. Trump. And that’s leaving aside everything investigators may be learning about the Trump Organization from Michael Cohen and Allen Weisselberg.
Let’s also assume that House Democrats will have done their work and, at a minimum, documented numerous and ghastly Trump family violations of the emoluments clause. Remember also on that front that two lawsuits are working their way through the federal courts, so let’s imagine that they are allowed to proceed as well.
This is to say nothing of the instances of more banal forms of corruption Democrats may have unearthed through their own investigations this year that could rightly be called high crimes and misdemeanors.
In sum, let us say that by next football season, the president’s goose will be well and truly cooked, and House impeachment proceedings seem amply justified.
There will then hang the question of whether 20 Senate Republicans — at least, assuming that all 47 Democrats would vote to convict — would actually agree to remove Mr. Trump from office. That seems exceedingly unlikely.
But whether they would or would not, many would argue that Democrats would still have a constitutional responsibility to exercise. Impeachment is the only remedy the founders provided for removing from office someone who is clearly unfit to hold it.
If all of what I stipulated above happens and the Democrats don’t act, aren’t they saying the Constitution is meaningless? If you can’t impeach a president whose very election is found to have been illegitimate, then whom can you impeach? And how do you recover, as a country, from such a bitterly partisan episode?
Those are good questions. But they have an obvious answer. While impeachment is clearly a valid exercise of power, so is another method of removal, also prescribed by the Constitution: an election. This is how Americans like to ditch presidents and parties they don’t like — presidential power has changed hands 44 times in this country’s history.
In addition, nine incumbent presidents have lost re-election, including three in the last half-century, and all have peacefully (if not always gracefully) yielded power. In contrast, only two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached by the House, though both were acquitted in the Senate. Richard Nixon, facing certain and imminent impeachment, resigned.
That’s a historical record that suggests that an electoral outcome will be much more widely accepted. Mr. Trump’s partisans will whine about the unfairness of it all in either case — they’ll blame “voter fraud,” or George Soros, or the “fake news media.” But if the voters have rebuffed the president, the whining will sound to most Americans like just that.
There’s one more reason I’d prefer to see Mr. Trump laid low via the ballot. It will do more long-term damage to the Republican Party.
If Mr. Trump is removed via impeachment and conviction — that is, with those 20 Republican votes — Republicans can say, “See, we’ve come to our senses; got that out of our system.” But if they renominate Mr. Trump and stick with him through November 2020 and the voters clearly say no, not again, Republicans are left sitting in the wreckage. They will be trying to air out the Trump stench for a generation, maybe two, which is precisely the fate they deserve.
True, this carries the risk that Mr. Trump might win in 2020. But the impeachment process carries the (considerable) risk that a Senate conviction will fall short, which would enable Mr. Trump to seek re-election as the victim of those vicious Democrats and of the enemy of the people, the press. Nothing in life is risk free.
But risk’s opposite is reward, and in this case the far greater reward — for liberals and Democrats, yes, but also for our democracy itself — is the one that would come on the night of Nov. 3, 2020, when perhaps a record number of voters will cast their ballots and a decisive majority will say to Mr. Trump: Go home.
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Michael Tomasky is a columnist for The Daily Beast, editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and a contributing opinion writer.
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