Rep. Adam Schiff knows something about impeachment. The California Democrat first won his seat in Congress in 2000, when he defeated a Republican incumbent, James Rogan, who two years earlier had been one of the “managers” acting for the House of Representatives in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Now Schiff is the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and in that position he has relentlessly hyped the narrative that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election. The specter of impeachment stalks the administration because of that story and the Mueller probe to which it gave rise.
Yet early this May, Schiff wrote a New York Times op-ed headlined “Democrats: Don’t Take the Bait on Impeachment,” in which he argued, quite correctly, that, “if impeachment is seen by a substantial part of the country as merely an effort to nullify an election by other means, there will be no impeachment, no matter how high the crime or serious the misdemeanor.” Why would Schiff douse his fellow Democrats’ enthusiasm for trying to get rid of President Trump before 2020?
His words bespoke a fear that impeachment talk would only energize Trump’s voters for the 2018 midterms. Trump, who has warned that Democrats will pursue his impeachment if they take control of the House after November, “seeks to use the false claim that Democrats are more interested in impeachment than governing to rally his base,” according to Schiff. Of course, many Democrats really do want to impeach Trump, and the possibility of doing so is one of their spurs to get out the vote and take back the House. But Schiff appears to be believe that the issue serves better to motivate Republicans to defend the President against his enemies.
This was not the way the politics of impeachment played out in 1974. Richard Nixon resigned that summer rather than be impeached by the House, but his political seppuku was not enough to save the GOP during the midterms. Democrats took 49 House seats from the GOP that November and gained four seats in the Senate. Impeachment was a winner for Democrats that year, toppling a Republican president and crippling the GOP in Congress. Schiff evidently does not see such possibilities in 2018, and he’s right not to—a year of hearings, investigations, and sensationalist headlines have yet to reveal any wrongdoing on President Trump’s part that could justify impeachment. The “other high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution mentions alongside treason and bribery as grounds for impeachment are subject to political as much as legal interpretation. But Schiff knows that President Trump is nowhere near unpopular enough for a political impeachment to be feasible or even to be a vote-getter in November. If the specter of impeachment is haunting anyone, politically speaking, it’s the Democrats, not Trump or the GOP.
In theory, impeachment is such a shameful and painful thing that even the threat of it can prompt a Nixon or a lesser figure like Andrew Mellon, Treasury secretary under Herbert Hoover, to resign. But the practical upshot of the Nixon experience is to show the president’s party—whatever it happens to be—that it might as well call the other party’s bluff. Republicans would not have done much worse in 1974 if Nixon had been impeached. Bill Clinton never seriously considered resigning, and thus called the GOP’s bluff in 1998, when Clinton faced impeachment and a Senate trial over his lies to a grand jury and obstruction of justice in l’affaire Lewinsky. The result of Clinton’s brazenness was that he did get impeached but was not removed, and in the midterms on the eve of impeachment it was the opposition, not the president’s party, who lost seats—an outcome unheard of in modern midterms. Schiff knows the story well.
Even as the apparent political risks of facing impeachment have dwindled since 1974, the infractions for which partisans demand impeachment have steadily become more dubious. Clinton really did obstruct justice and lie under oath, but he did so in a matter that was far from having any obvious significance for the health of the republic. Nixon had obstructed justice in a more important matter. And Trump? With the Russia scandal amounting to nothing, his enemies’ attention has turned to payments made to pornographic performer Stormy Daniels by Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Daniels—or Stephanie Clifford, as she’s known when she’s not on camera—alleges this was hush money to get her to cover up an affair with Trump. A sordid tale, no doubt, but what about it would constitute high crimes or misdemeanors? The President’s opponents reach for the justification that maybe, if you squint hard enough, Cohen is guilty of making, and Trump of receiving, an excessive campaign contribution. But even if Trump did not repay Cohen—and it looks as if he did—construing a lawyer’s expenditure on behalf of his client as a campaign contribution is quite a stretch. It certainly is not the kind of thing that gets a two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate to vote for removing the president. Nor is it something voters are likely to find impeachment-worthy. A Pelosi-led House that embarked on such a fool’s errand would set Democrats up for retribution in 2020.
Impeachment is not quite a dead letter: Some future president could commit treason or maybe murder and get both impeached and removed. But the two-thirds requirement for conviction makes removal for anything short of the very highest crimes, and no misdemeanors, implausible. The threat of impeachment, meanwhile, is no threat at all when it places those making it in jeopardy of having their bluff called and suffering more for the effort than the president or his party. Schiff has good reason to warn his fellow Democrats against a rush to impeachment. And President Trump has every reason to think he’ll come out ahead if Democrats make the attempt anyway.