On Monday, Democrats will begin hearings to further investigate President Trump. Their mission is clear and concise, which is through public sessions, testimony, and document review, prove to the voting public that Trump both engaged in a conspiracy with Russian officials to influence the 2016 election, and when confronted with the prospect of his secretive dealings being revealed, obstructed Mueller and his team’s pursuit of justice.
This fight will be lengthy and intense. For nearly a year and a half as Trump ran for the Republican ticket, and then as the party nominee, there was total media coverage both ridiculing his shtick but also intensifying the partisan nature of the contest. Especially in places like California, where Trump never had a chance electorally, there was outright seething violence on a scale never before seen since the Vietnam era. It wasn’t returning soldiers being accosted by New Left activists, rather it was mostly everyday folks such as retailers, accountants, bus drivers, teachers, and retirees engaging in open mutual hostility.
The calculus of the coverage given to Trump was at first noble. Organizations such as MSNBC and others were gleeful to provide the New York billionaire all the screen time he desired. The theory seemed solid; the more people saw his antics, the more easily he could be skewered. Trump was a buffoon, an idiot, fat, and no doubt bald. But it didn’t work. Being someone who grew up in the furnace of Manhattan’s tabloid 80s, he didn’t care. There was a strange awareness that it didn’t matter if the coverage was terrible; what mattered was his cataloged defiance in spite of constant attacks.
The impeachment fight will be a social media affair, especially in an age where small bite-sized clips go global in a matter of minutes. The memetic potential for a drawn-out Congressional investigation is immense. Witness after witness will give their side of the story, namely how it was that Trump secretly, or in broad daylight, conspired with another nation to win Wisconsin—and Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Documents will be demanded of the White House, giving the president another opportunity to do what he probably does best, which is tweet his disapproval. However, the impeachment strategy needs careful consideration. In what seemed like yesterday, it was near continuous coverage that gave Trump the ability to show his supporters, moderates, and even Democrats, the type of uniquely branded persona that has become his trademark. Live tweets, denunciations, and counter-testimony will flood Twitter, as well as Facebook groups. What surely half the country will see is not just a prosecution—Mueller declined to do that—but something akin to a WWE wrestler defending himself against a squad of jabronies. If the Democratic leadership wants another scorched-earth partisan war, they will get it. But depending on how they play their cards, they better have the nuts; otherwise, 7–6 offsuit will not get saved by the river.
That is not to say the House should abdicate its responsibility; on the contrary, they have the explicit authority to levy charges as enumerated. Impeachment has a long, storied history, going back more than six hundred years to English kings. As a way for parliament to check the monarchy, it was a tool for removing those in the royal court who were belligerent, odious, and even criminal. Bribes, incompetence, and treason were real concerns. Those on our side of the Atlantic wanted the same power to deal with executive officers, even if no laws were broken. Indeed, it is the political nature of presidents and appointees, including judges, that lends itself to a broader interpretation of high crimes and misdemeanors. And that is where Trump is most vulnerable. Irrespective of indictable offenses, impeachment gives some remedy to remove the chief executive if his behavior threatens the nation. Proving that will be difficult in light of the special prosecutor’s lack of conclusive resolve, which Attorney General Bob Barr interprets as insufficiently rising to the level of obstructing justice. Others with much more legal experience than myself seem to agree. If the strategy is to formalize the material the Democratic nominee will use during the 2020 presidential election, then the impeachment hearings will provide the necessary rhetoric and evidence to convict Trump in the court of public opinion, with or without the Senate’s judgment.
Speaker Pelosi does not want the Democratic nominee’s message drowned out. After all, Obama won back-to-back presidential races not with negative pitches, but through hope and change. The fear is that if House lawyers cannot persuade two-thirds of the Senate to convict, this failure will be a central theme accentuated by Trump and his team. If the goal is removal, then the inability to complete the job can be used as a bludgeon against in-play House districts. Providing a narrative for Republican challengers in areas of the country with razor-thin Democratic leads might oust the current House leader from her commanding position, all but assuring retirement. Additionally, winning 2020 for whoever is nominated in Milwaukee next year is statistically facing headwinds. Incumbent advantage, economic growth, and turnout are all influential factors. Understandably Pelosi truly believes a drawn-out battle over constitutional legalese will not be the dramatic ‘who shot J.R. moment’ imagined, but instead will be harpooned by the president as another example of a party unable to deliver—a contrast Trump is eager to highlight.
Up to a quarter of Democratic House members, including a lone Republican, fully support the impeachment effort, and the list is growing. However, it remains to be seen if a majority will force Pelosi’s hand. Running Democratic candidates have no qualms encouraging a sustained committee lead effort, but it is far from consequential to call for impeachment when residing in a safe district seat. And that is precisely the problem. Pelosi is put in a precarious position by those in her party who can only benefit from elevated exposure, rallying the most ardent partisans in places not facing any rising tides; advantages she is no afforded. Instead, she must contend with a chamber that controls only one-half of Congress. The other half, spiritedly lead by a Conservative coalition that so far believes Attorney General Barr and are not afraid to spend the money necessary defending Susan Collins in Maine, or Cory Gardner in Colorado. Senate leaders are as defiant as Trump himself, fully expecting to counter House lawyers with subsequent findings if and when Barr finishes his review of surveillance efforts launched by those in the Obama Administration. The situation is beginning to get very unpredictable, and predictability is preferred in politics—just ask pollsters.
The impeachment battle will be another monumental episode in American political history. On one side are those who strongly believe the president is a criminal, and the Mueller report is evidence of a collusive conspiracy between his campaign and Russian intelligence agents, working together to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and release them to WikiLeaks. Not only that, but there is the now the fervent belief, especially since Muller’s press statement, that there were instances in which the president attempted to influence the direction of the special prosecutor’s investigation, instances that were ultimately unsuccessful due to subordinate dereliction. On the other side are those who strongly believe the president was illegally spied on during his campaign, that Five Eyes assets were used to penetrate Trump’s inner circle and justify the use of FISA court authorizations that ultimately made the investigation of the president a legal matter. The Senate will adjudicate all of this, but the clouds are slowly gathering among House members as the political calculus is metered out.
Whatever the verdict may be, Trump’s unpredictability might finally make his impeachment moot. There is a strong likelihood wall construction will commence using monies sloshing around between executive departments. After a national emergency declaration in February, preparations are ongoing for wall assembly to begin in earnest either during the impeachment Senate trial or at least while the 2020 election is moving forward. In other words, although the narrative designs of House Democrats have upside in educating the public on Trump’s malfeasance, it is not lost on those familiar with Supreme Court litigation that Congress will be unable to stop Trump’s construction of a border barrier. One can only imagine the sight of a Senate vote acquittal set split-screen against an army of cranes slotting metal fixtures; perhaps presumptuous, but possible considering the legal progress made in the Federal courts. The appointment of another Supreme Court Justice during this period would only guarantee the judiciary’s deference to the executive in matters regarding border security.
The past four years have been truly unbelievable for most political observers, including for academics, pundits, and your average armchair newshound. It has been tough to narrow down all of the elements needed to make reliable predictions. The independent investigation into Trump by Muller and his staff revealed the gritty details of a nascent political outsider running for the most powerful office in history. That report has produced the required capital needed to begin a comprehensive Congressional impeachment inquiry, one which will be counter-posed by a president who now has sixty million Twitter followers, most of whom provide likes and retweets that consistently outnumber replies. Getting ratioed is an issue Trump rarely confronts. But the social media storm that is brewing will be one for the ages. A populist politician set against Congress’s populist assembly, each fighting for every square inch of narrative control. Who will win out? If I only knew.