Why Republicans Might Secretly Be Hoping for a Trump-Russia Connection
29 March 2017. Ever since November 9th, progressives have been dreaming about a Trump impeachment, believing fiercely, almost adolescently, in its inevitability. There’s no way this guy doesn’t get impeached. Wishful thinking aside, conventional wisdom accepts that Republicans in Congress would never allow impeachment to go forward as long as they have a majority, so it’ll take a Democratic wave in the 2018 mid-term elections to end the Trump presidency before it expires.
Impeachment-wishers cheered the failure of the AHCA, believing, with good reason, that failure to repeal and replace Obamacare delivered a major blow to Republican chances in 2018. Speculation about a 2019 impeachment have been ratcheting up recently. With House Intelligence Committee Chairman David Nunes’ inexplicable actions last week making it look more reasonable to conclude that incidental surveillance of foreign agents might’ve turned up something looking very much like collusion, even Republicans might be starting to think impeachment during this Congressional term, and rooting — privately of course, unconsciously even — for a decent case to emerge from the on-going FBI investigation.
If Trump campaign collusion is ultimately shown, that doesn’t mean we go back in time and rerun the 2016 election and swear in Hillary as the 45th president. The only Constitutional path forward is impeachment in the House, followed by a Senate trial and removal from office, sending Vice President Pence to the White House.
That’s got to be sounding pretty good to some Republicans, even this early in Trump’s presidency — especially this early. It’s pretty obvious that things are going very badly for the G.O.P. in terms of advancing its agenda, even with unified government. Put simply, Trump is a terrible legislative leader. (To be fair, most incoming presidents, with the Exception of LBJ and FDR, aren’t very good at getting Congress to move on their priorities, but Trump is spectacularly not good at it, at least so far.)
The chances of Trump turning around his presidency with high-profile wins on tax reform, budget-cutting, wall-building, etc. seem pretty slim to most observers. Mike Pence, on the other hand, could probably go back to square one, get a repeal-and-replace bill through the House, maybe even the Senate, then possibly move on to tackling tax reform, all while acting in a perfectly statesmanlike manner, and keeping the social conservatives in the G.O.P. happy with the certainty of yet more conservative judicial appointments. Who in the G.O.P. establishment wouldn’t prefer Pence at this point? Only the hardcore Trumpkins and those who fear the Trump supporters back home, but the latter group knows already that Trump is going to disappoint those folks, and they, not he, will be the ones feeling the pain in 2018.
But why sooner rather than later for a Pence presidency? Would the Republicans really hope for a pre-mid-term exit for Trump? Of course. It’s almost a best-case scenario. Avoiding the 2018 mid-term bloodbath is one reason to show Trump the door as fast as possible. Holding the White House in 2020 is the other, bigger one.
However it comes down, an impeachment trial is likely to be prolonged and ugly. We all know that. Unlike that paragon of self-effacement, Richard Nixon, who resigned before impeachment charges could be leveled (“the interest of the Nation must always come before any personal considerations”), it’s hard to imagine Trump giving up his Oval Office gold curtains without a fight to the bitter end. Imagine how horribly that would tarnish the entire Republican Party.
That, of course, is exactly why it’s so inconceivable that a Republican House would ever pass articles of impeachment bill, no matter what the Russia investigation turns up.
But is it really so inconceivable? Some Republicans must know that impeachment is likely — if not inevitable — if the Democrats take the House in 2018, whether the Russia thing pans out or not, which means a Senate trial starting in mid-2019 or so. Let’s say the Senate remains Republican after 2018 — that doesn’t mean Trump gets acquitted quickly, and the country moves on. Even Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial on relatively thin charges lasted over a month. Trump’s trial could drag on for half a year, possibly more. Democratic impeachment managers from the House are sure to haul in every last shred of Trump misbehavior — every conflict of interest, every whiff of impropriety, every tie between the campaign and any foreign government. There’s bound to be reams and reams of it. And Trump is likely to play right into the spectacle, basking in the undivided attention of a nation going crazy on both sides. He’ll have a grand time exactly where he’s most comfortable, fighting back.
From the G.O.P. perspective, the Trump Impeachment Circus is an unmitigated disaster, even if Trump survives the final Senate vote. And what if the Senate actually votes to remove him? (He has enough Republican detractors in the Senate to make that possible.) If that happens in this scenario, it happens in late-2019, or even early-2020, and now President Pence has little time to solidify his administration before having to secure the nomination against a rabid pack of Ted Cruzes and Marco Rubios, then immediately pivot to the general election with little in the way of concrete accomplishments to back his plea for a full term. Gerald Ford had far more time than that, and he couldn’t avoid a primary challenge from Ronald Reagan or hold out against a weak candidate like Jimmy Carter, and he wasn’t even that closely tied to the Nixon administration, coming in only after the resignation of Spiro Agnew.
Pence, more tied to Trump, will have a mightily difficult time getting separation. He could use two-and-a-half years, instead of six or nine months, to rack up the accomplishments and solidify his hold over the party. Given that kind of time, he might lead the country into a period of decent reformist prosperity — enough, at least, to win re-election in 2020, maybe even bringing back a Republican majority to the House.
But that only happens if Republicans in Congress today get the kind of political cover needed to launch an impeachment by the end of 2017. The Russia collusion scandal offers the best hope of that happening. Sure, a messy 2018 impeachment proceeding would hurt them in the mid-terms, though it might hurt them less than whatever else is already going to hurt them. At the very least, they could run as principled protectors of the Constitution rather than the jerks who failed to repeal Obamacare.
Could Congressional Republicans really be harboring such a secret hope? Maybe, maybe not, but the political reality lines up and the calculations check out, so I’d bet there are at least a few gaming out this scenario in the back of their minds and calibrating what they say over the next few months in terms of this possibility.