Donald Trump likes attention. He is the class clown of U.S. politics. But he only likes attention that is suitably adulatory in his estimation. Any time anyone points our how stupid and irresponsible his actions are, he denounces the report as “fake news,” the best his juvenile mind can come up with to defend itself against valid criticisms.
Right now, most of the discussion about Trump revolves around the question of whether the House of Representatives should impeach him. Bizzarely, Nancy Pelosi has stated on national television that she is tired of talking about Trump. Um, Nancy, it’s part of your job right now. If you don’t want to do it, step aside and let someone else take over.
Trump is so stupid that he does not mind having people discuss impeaching him — as long as they do not actually follow through and begin impeachment. It’s a game to him, and because he does not understand the history and traditions of the United States, or anything about what our Constitution says and how our federal government is supposed to operate, he feels no shame in having people openly discuss impeaching him.
So vast is his ignorance of the provisions of the U.S. Constitution that he has said publicly that he would look to the Supreme Court in the event that the House impeaches him. The Constitution provides that the chief justice presides over the trial in the Senate if the president is on trial, but otherwise, it gives the Court zero role in the impeachment process.
Pelosi is giving Trump what he wants. She can’t stop everyone from talking about him and about impeaching him. She can ruin the ego party by proceeding with impeachment to see how he handles it, which will be badly, since we know he does not react well when Pelosi challenges him.
In many ways, Trump is entirely unprecedented. We have had corrupt presidents in our history, quite a few of them. We have impeached three presidents. The impeachment of Andrew Johnson involved his alleged violation of a highly specific statute that may well be in force still, but is not at all relevant, and the historical circumstances were so unusual as to make his example pretty much useless.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the impeachment people seem most likely to appeal to in trying to think through what to do about Trump is our last impeachment, that of Bill Clinton. In an interview, House member Tom Malinowski from New Jersey explains why he now publicly favors impeachment hearings. Rep. Malinowski ended up at the right position in the end, but that does not mean that we should not examine the explanation he offers of his thought process to help us think this through ourselves.
He says, rightly, that no one knows what the political effects of impeaching Trump would be, but we can make some educated guesses, and fortune favors the bold. The reporter points out that impeaching Clinton actually helped Clinton, but this is not the best comparator. The reason impeaching Clinton helped him politically is that he was mostly a popular president to begin with, and the general public could see that impeaching him was a partisan hit job. No one could approve of the conduct that lay at the root of impeaching Clinton, but it was the sort of event that likely happens every day and that any man could engage in.
The better comparator is Nixon. In sharp contrast to Clinton, Nixon had abysmal public approval when he left office. The conduct that led to Nixon’s impeachment was criminal by itself. He abused power that is unique to the president. He proposed getting the CIA to stop an FBI investigation, which only the president can do. Just as only the president can fire the director of the FBI to stop an investigation of a former presidential appointee that has the capacity to implicate the president himself, the event that prompted the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate.
Weirdly, Malinowski says that the Clinton impeachment hurt Gore. That is an argument in favor of impeaching Trump, since we want to harm whatever candidate is closest to Trump in 2020, whether Trump himself or some other Republican. But also, Gore ran a lousy campaign and one of his big mistakes was failing to see that Clinton was still very popular after the impeachment and deliberately distancing himself from Clinton.
Lots of people want to appeal to history to justify their own decisions and to condemn decisions they disapprove of. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. History is messy and rarely offers clear cut lessons of the sort most people apparently want. It is also too easy to think that one knows well the history of events one has lived through. Pelosi lived through both the Nixon and Clinton impeachments. She was a member of the House during the Clinton impeachment.
But if she is using the Clinton impeachment as her guide for how to handle Trump, she is making a serious error. Clinton obviously had some impulse control problems, but he understood the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government it creates. Whatever one may think about Clinton, he was nowhere near as corrupt as Trump. Like Obama and Trump, he suffered a serious political setback in his first midterm election. Like Obama and unlike Trump, Clinton managed to work effectively with a hostile Congress. The best criticism of Clinton is that he gave Republicans too much, signing bad Republican bills he should have vetoed.
Historically and conceptually, it is hard to get from Clinton to Trump. The line from Nixon to Trump is direct and obvious. Trump could only happen because of the noxious political and policy reasoning Nixon set off with his entirely cynical, megalomaniacal approach to the presidency. Clinton made mistakes, but he genuinely wanted to enact public policies that would benefit the entire country. Nixon and Trump see the presidency as a plaything for gratifying their twisted psyches.
Pelosi needs to take a step back and compare Trump to Nixon.
Pelosi needs to declare loudly that she is starting an impeachment inquiry.