Less than 60 days into Donald Trump’s unpredicted – and unpredictable – presidency, impeachment is fast becoming the top topic of conversation here in Washington, DC. Wherever I go, whomever I talk to, the conversation ends with one question: can this unqualified, unhinged narcissist last the full four years?
From left-wingers such as the film-maker Michael Moore to right-wingers such as the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, the pundits are counting down the days until impeachment hearings begin. Professor Allan Lichtman of American University, who has correctly forecast every presidential election result since 1984, including Trump’s, is now predicting that the president will be removed from office over his alleged ties to Russia.
I’m not convinced. Talk of impeachment seems like a liberal fantasy of the highest order. No president of the United States has been charged, convicted and forced out of office. Andrew Johnson (1865-69) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001) were both impeached by the House of Representatives but then acquitted by trials in the Senate; Article II, Section 4 of the US constitution gives the House the sole power to impeach but the Senate the sole power to convict. It also lists impeachable offences as “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanours” – without defining what constitutes a “high crime” or “misdemeanour”. Speaking in 1970, Gerald Ford – who, ironically, went on to serve as president after Richard Nixon resigned from office to avoid near-certain impeachment – said: “An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
This perhaps is the overarching reason why Trump can carry on golfing at Mar-a-Lago without a care in the world: there is no appetite for impeachment where it matters most. The president’s party controls the House of Representatives and, thanks to a combination of brazen gerrymandering and attempts at voter suppression, will probably still command a majority in the House even after the November 2018 midterms. As for the Senate, again the Republicans are in control, with a majority of four and with Senate Democrats, come 2018, having to defend seats in five “ruby-red” states where Trump won by double-digit margins.
If you think the radicalised Republicans on Capitol Hill, who at every stage of the campaign put party before country and who are now on the verge of taking control of the Supreme Court, rolling back abortion rights and passing tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, are going to impeach the man who made all this happen for them and did what their last two presidential candidates couldn’t, I have a Trump Tower to sell you.
Despite Trump’s manifest unfitness for the highest office in the land, his opponents on the right have proved to be few and far between. Take Jason Chaffetz. After the now-notorious recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault emerged last October, Chaffetz, the GOP chair of the House oversight committee, who had spent years hounding Hillary Clinton over her emails, withdrew his endorsement of his party’s candidate. He said he couldn’t look his teenage daughter “in the eye”. Yet the following month, he fell back into line and announced he’d be voting for . . . Trump. Is this the kind of Republican legislator you think has the backbone to vote for impeachment?
Then there are the Senate Republicans, supposedly the grown-ups of the party. Asked by the New York Times last month how long he and his colleagues would tolerate Trump’s crazy conspiracies and bizarre behaviour, Senator John Cornyn, the
Republican whip, replied bluntly: “As long as we’re able to get things done.” The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said there was “a high level of satisfaction” with Trump and that Republican senators weren’t bothered by “the daily tweets”.
You may be repulsed by their cynicism but you have to admire their chutzpah. Even mild critics within the GOP, such as John McCain, whom Trump publicly ridiculed for being captured by the Vietcong, told the Times that “we can get a lot done with the people around him”. Ted Cruz, whose wife Trump once mocked, tweeting that she was ugly, took his wife with him to a family dinner with the president at the White House early this month. Is there any Trumpian humiliation these people will not forgive, forget or brush under the Oval Office carpet?
“It’s hard for me to imagine President Trump committing any offence so egregious that Republicans in Congress would consider it impeachable in the current political climate,” McKay Coppins, the author of The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, tells me. “Any GOP lawmaker to break ranks with the rest of the party and call for impeachment would almost surely suffer the consequences at the ballot box.”
Remember: Trump may have entered office in January as the least popular president of the modern era but he still has an 80 per cent approval rating with Republican voters. This dynamic might change, Coppins says, “but it would take a pretty serious crime on Trump’s part, complete with some sort of undeniable smoking gun” and it would also require “influential elements of the conservative media to turn on the president”.
For now, obsessing over impeachment is a dangerous distraction from the biggest challenge of all: resisting not just Trump’s hard-right policy agenda but the normalisation of his politics of hate, bigotry and “alternative facts” over the next four years. The reality is that the only way to remove Trump from office is the old-fashioned way: to beat him at the ballot box – again.
Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain