What we did learn Thursday is how both sides might argue for or against President Trump’s impeachment.
This wasn’t quite a proxy vote for impeachment, since we don’t yet know all the evidence or what articles of impeachment will be written up against the president. But it’s the closest thing we’ve got. So here are some takeaways from both sides’ talking points about whether to continue the House’s impeachment inquiry.
Republicans’ process argument is fading
Now that Republicans technically got what they wanted, a vote on whether to continue the impeachment inquiry, even Trump has tacitly acknowledged it becomes much more difficult to argue the inquiry is illegitimate by these standards. Here he is a day before the vote urging Republicans to argue he’s innocent of the allegations against him, rather than attack the impeachment process.
It was already a somewhat thin argument that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate because House Democrats are holding closed-door depositions (which are normal for such a sensitive investigation) and because they didn’t hold a vote (they just did — and Republicans voted against it).
There is some merit to the GOP argument that House Democrats are selectively leaking damaging testimony about Trump. “We’re already scarred because they’ve done all these things in a shady manner and then put them out to the press the way they wanted,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox Business on Thursday.
But Republicans on the three committees in these depositions could do the reverse, by leaking information that exonerates Trump. It seems likely that isn’t happening not because of their profound respect for the testimony, but because to date there hasn’t been information exonerating Trump.
Rather, people in Trump’s administration are alleging at a minimum that they were uncomfortable with his politicization of Ukrainian foreign policy, and at worst thought it threatened national security.
In its place: An overreach argument leveled at Democrats
“Democrats are trying to impeach the president because they are scared they can’t defeat him at the ballot box,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a speech before the vote.
“Every American can see this for what it is: an attempt to remove a duly-elected president for strictly political reasons by a strictly partisan, illegitimate process,” said Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, in a statement.
Compared to the process argument, this feels a little more politically resonant. It plays off voters’ hesitancy to impeach a president at any time, let alone now. It is unprecedented in modern times to have an impeachment inquiry abut a presidential election.
Even though polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans support the impeachment inquiry, a New York Times-Siena College poll out this week showed that in six states that narrowly voted for Trump in 2016, voters don’t support impeachment. It’s possible that impeaching Trump especially before an election is a step too far for swing voters.
But to make this argument, Trump’s Republican defenders in Congress also need to demonize Democrats. And they risk taking it too far.
On Thursday, the No. 2 House Republican, Steve Scalise (La.), brought with him to the House floor a printout “37 days of Soviet-Style impeachment proceedings,” with a picture of the Kremlin in the background and the hammer and sickle superimposed.
It’s no secret Democrats in Congress don’t like Trump, but are voters really going to think they have undermined the Constitution and turned America into an authoritarian state with this impeachment inquiry?
But when the president is saying stuff like “Greatest Witch Hunt in American History,” his supporters in Congress probably feel like they have to match his hyperbole.
Democrats are using absolutist language, too
This impeachment inquiry crystallizes the problem for Democrats ever since Trump got elected: They do think he’s bad for democracy. Not all of them supported starting up the process for impeachment — that came after these Ukraine allegations, where some people in Trump’s own administration thought his ideas were a threat to America’s interests.
But with Republicans in Congress and Republican voters so firmly in line with Trump, this becomes a largely one-party effort to investigate the president. How do they convince the American public they’re doing the right thing, rather than the politically obvious thing? On Thursday we got a look at their strategy: They’re trying to frame this impeachment in somber, existential terms.
“What is at stake in all of this? It’s nothing less than our democracy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said before the vote.
That’s a pretty intense thing to say, even abstractly, about the fairly elected, sitting president of the United States. But as Democrats move forward to the next phase of the impeachment inquiry, they’re saying it.