Trump does have a strategy for impeachment — we just didn't want to see it

Jay Caruso
US president Donald Trump waves after disembarking Air Force One upon arriving in Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, after their Thanksgiving vacation on 1 December 2019: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

News broke over the weekend that Trump will not send an attorney to this weeks' impeachment hearing before the Judiciary Committee. It seems like a strange move, even a foolish one — until you look a little closer. This seeming misstep may actually be strategic.

Not inclined to go so far as Trump to say the call was "perfect" and that he did "nothing wrong," Republicans — particularly those on the Intelligence Committee — have focused primarily on the fact the aid was ultimately released, and Zelensky didn't announce an investigation, so surely there isn’t a problem. How can there be a quid pro quo or bribery if nothing happened and the aid wasn't held up? their basic defensive line has been.

Couple that line with the fact that Trump isn’t sending an attorney on Wednesday and a strategy begins to materialize. Trump and the GOP will not mount a defense of what Trump did, but instead continue to go after the process as nothing more than a partisan endeavor that Democrats were looking to do since the president set foot in the Oval Office.

And the bad news for Democrats is that this strategy just might work.

Polling is still critical as to whether or not the president gets removed from office. Democrats and progressive activists hoped that support for impeachment would increase after the first few hearings. It didn't, and as of now, the country is still split on the issue almost right down the middle.

That's not nearly enough to get a large group of Republicans in the House to vote for articles of impeachment — and makes it even less likely that 20 Republican Senators would vote to remove Trump from office.

The parallels to the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton are challenging to ignore. Back then, Democrats argued about the process being unfair. They called it partisan. They said the accusations against Clinton did not rise to the level of impeachment. Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, who is now the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in his opening statement at the House Judiciary Committee hearing in December 1998, "There are clearly some members of the Republican majority who have never accepted the results of the 1992 or 1996 elections”.

Nadler also said, "We have no right to overturn the considered judgment of the American people." That language sounds familiar.

Similarly, there were Democrats who called the impeachment attempt in 1998 "a coup attempt”. Indeed, there was no shortage of Democrats attacking the process in the same way that Republicans are attacking the process now. Unless the public hears about something entirely new — something that lends weight to accusations of bribery and abuse of power — it's difficult to see the country moving in the direction that scares Republicans enough to vote one of their own out the White House.

The more significant fear is that the public sees it only as a partisan exercise. And Trump has a point when he argues people have called for him to get impeached almost since the day he took office. When he fired Jim Comey, for instance, the question of whether or not that constituted obstruction of justice — and thus an impeachable offense — made the rounds. That was in May 2017, approximately five months after he took office.

Trump will claim that Democrats are afraid they cannot beat him at the ballot box, so they want to remove him from office entirely. It makes for excellent campaign fodder and an excellent applause line at his rallies. Without a big jump in the polls, the voting public may settle on waiting for November 2020 to let the people make the decision. And that could well play to Donald Trump’s advantage, giving new energy to his “stick it to the establishment” shtick.

Rather than a last resort, Team Trump wants the public to believe impeachment is a political tool any politician in 2019 will use at the drop of a hat. And the worst — but perhaps most believable — thing that can come from this process is America believing it.