Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and a fellow of Massey College and St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.
I never thought I would see the day when I would defend Donald Trump. If I’ve been silent for the past year, it was only lest my attacks on him prove tedious. No matter how much you loathe Mr. Trump, there’s only so much you can say against him – and someone else has already said it.
What an unexpected windfall, then, to find something to say in his defence and direct it at his would-be impeachers: Hands off Mr. Trump!
Admittedly, my defence of Mr. Trump – an argument against his impeachment – isn’t much of a defence of him otherwise. That’s not because I regard his presidency as wholly indefensible. When it comes to policy, Mr. Trump hasn’t always been wrong. Many of Barack Obama’s policies were in grievous need of correction, and Mr. Trump has sought to correct them. That is to his credit.
I would support some of his policies if they actually were policies. So erratic is Mr. Trump, however, that they don’t qualify as such. The perennial game of musical chairs among the ranks of his top advisers testifies to the evanescence of those policies. Besides, it is only too evident that most of these dangling chads of policy, whether good, bad or indifferent, are shortsighted bids for re-election. That is a disease to which Mr. Trump seems even more prone than most politicians.
In any case, policy is overrated. All policies have both advantages and drawbacks, and such is the sway in political life of the law of unintended consequences that their chief impact is almost never as planned. This is just one reason why presidents are at least as influential for what they are as for what they do, and Mr. Trump is a continued disgrace to his office. His ongoing debasement of the presidency has harmed the United States far more than his policies have helped it.
So Mr. Trump should go, right, and we should applaud a looming Democratic effort to impeach him? Actually, no. Bad as he has been and will continue to be, impeaching him (or even moving forward with his impeachment) would be worse. Under the Constitution of the United States, it is not up to the Congress to determine the holder of the presidency, thus overturning the verdict of the people as expressed through the Electoral College. Only in extreme circumstances and as a last resort is the Congress to consider impeachment. Neither of those conditions exists today.
Have we already forgotten that the Mueller report, of which so much was expected, fizzled utterly? That there’s hardly an American voter who could tell you what its findings were? That Mr. Mueller himself proved incapable of expounding them to Congress? As recent history’s greatest anticlimax, the report benefited only Mr. Trump.
Such is the likely outcome of any inquest into the murk of Mr. Trump’s arm-twisting of the hapless President of Ukraine. Given the stage of the election cycle, no such inquest could drag on endlessly like Mr. Mueller’s. It would have to be quicker, dirtier and intensely partisan. In the absence of a smoking gun, it would persuade no one but the Democrats themselves that Mr. Trump had committed the high crimes and misdemeanours specified as grounds for impeachment. (His call with Volodymyr Zelensky, while predictably sleazy, doesn’t rise to this exacting standard.)
If, therefore, the Democrats proceed to impeachment itself, they will almost certainly succeed in the House and fail in the Senate, both votes having occurred strictly along party lines. The uncommitted public would perceive this for what it was, a gratuitous partisan gambit by the Democrats, and it would rally the Democratic base only at the cost of inflaming Mr. Trump’s. On the verge of an election whose outcome will likely depend on turnout, impeachment would be a double-edged sword. Like many demagogues, Mr. Trump is most effective when cornered.
Since the Democratic leaders are not fools, they will humour their hotheads by stepping up to the brink of impeachment but, minus that smoking gun, won’t cross it. They won’t proceed from their inquiry to tabling actual articles of impeachment. They will content themselves with casting such aspersions as may benefit them in the 2020 election. They will try to manage their inquest so as not to upstage their primaries, still the keys to their success in that election. If they play their cards right, they have every reason to expect success. Impeachment would be playing them wrong.
So there, I’ve done it. I’ve rallied to the side of Mr. Trump. A plum appointment will follow (briefly).
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