There’s a Popular Groundswell for Impeachment—and It’s Totally Not Happening

Roughly half the public believes Trump has committed crimes and should be impeached. Don’t hold your breath.
If you live in certain media markets in the country, over the last couple of weeks you may have seen an ad running on cable news channels that features billionaire Tom Steyer making the case that Donald Trump should be impeached. Here it is, in case you have better things to do than watch TV:

I have to admit I love the ad. It expresses my feelings perfectly, laying out some of the many reasons why it's insane that a man like Donald Trump is president of the United States. Steyer told Newsweek that Trump is "an immediate danger to the health and safety of America, given the president's recent threats to Americans' First Amendment rights, his statements provoking conflict with North Korea, his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his inadequate response to white nationalist violence and his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement." He added, "This is not a time for 'patience' — Donald Trump is not fit for office. It is evident that there is zero reason to believe 'he can be a good president.'"

Yes, yes and yes, all of that is true. It has been almost a year since the election and I still can't quite believe it happened.

That view isn't shared by one prominent American who had a little Twitter tantrum when he saw it on "Fox & Friends" one morning:

Steyer's ad has only been up and running since Oct. 20, and has already garnered more than a million signatures for the petition to impeach Trump at needtoimpeach.com. It seems to have hit a nerve.

The national desire to remove Trump from office, by any means necessary, seems to be growing. Public Policy Polling asked the question last week:

PPP’s newest national poll finds a record level of support for impeaching Donald Trump. 49% of voters support impeaching him, to 41% who are opposed to doing so. This marks the 6th month in a row we’ve found a plurality of voters in favor of impeaching Trump, and it’s the closest we’ve found to a majority.

Even when the question isn't asked outright one can easily infer from almost all of the recent polling that President Trump does not have the trust of the American people. That PPP poll showed that "only 37% of voters think he’s honest, to 56% who say he’s not." Fifty-two percent of those surveyed flat-out called him a liar, which is of course correct.

Meanwhile, the latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows that 49 percent of Americans believe Trump has actually committed a crime, compared to just 44 percent who say he hasn't. And 53 percent believes that the special prosecutor indictments this week were likely a sign of broader crimes in the Trump campaign.

All this is taking place as Trump's approval ratings are generally mired in the 30s. He hit 33 percent in the Gallup tracking poll early in the week and the newest Pew Research poll has him at a 34 percent approval to 59 percent disapproval, a five-point decline since June. That survey shows that twice as many strongly disapprove of the president's job performance as strongly approve (51 percent to 25 percent).

The bottom line is that Donald Trump is deeply unpopular with the public and getting more so by the day. Unfortunately, here is the harsh reality: No matter how many petitions people sign or how low his approval ratings go, the chances of impeachment are almost nil.

Sure, it seems as though it should be a breeze. After all, the Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton over lying about an extramarital affair just 20 years ago. Surely this malfeasance in office and potential lawbreaking will lead to the same thing. But it's important to keep in mind that Clinton was impeached by a Republican majority, and was of course acquitted in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required to convict and remove the president from office. (That part has never happened.) In these polarized times, impeachment is a partisan affair and Republicans are exceptionally unlikely to impeach and convict one of their own.

But frankly, it would be tough no matter what. As Jonathan Rauch laid out in Lawfare a while back, Richard Nixon held on for almost two years despite the fact that his approval ratings fell precipitously as the Watergate scandal wore. They dropped all the way to the mid-20s and never recovered. Even back then, in more bipartisan times, there was one big reason for that:

The critical variable was not overall approval but Republican  approval. ... In 1974, as today, Republican legislators were fearful of the political consequences of abandoning a Republican president who enjoyed Republican partisans’ support. That was one reason they protected him for so long. So a key question becomes: when did the Republican base sour on Nixon, making it safe for party leaders to eject him?

The answer is that it never did. Nixon maintained a majority of Republican support the whole time. A delegation of congressional Republicans, led by Sen. Barry Goldwater, went to the White House to tell him he'd lost their support after the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes of his Oval Office conversations to investigators. For all his flaws, Nixon was an intelligent man. He understood he was facing an impeachment trial and decided to resign instead.

Trump understands nothing. Today's GOP congress is petrified of its base, more than 80 percent of whom are still solidly behind Trump. Furthermore, Trump and Nixon are very different animals. Nixon clung to the facade of his own rectitude while Trump, in Rauch's words, has "weaponized flagrance."  His followers have eagerly embraced his aberrant and unstable behavior, and at this point it's hard to imagine what would pry them loose. After all, Trump has bragged that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not alienate his supporters. To this point, the evidence suggests he's right.

None of this is to say that pursuing impeachment would be wrong. If it's not appropriate for Donald Trump, then what in the world is it even there for? Sometimes a cause is worth pursuing even if it's bound to fail. But with the Republican Party being what it is, it would be foolish for anyone to pin her hopes on impeachment as a means of ending this nightmare.

   

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