Washington Wednesday: Impeachment

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 3rd of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: Washington Wednesday.

For our summer Legal Docket series, we’ve turned to you for suggestions about topics you’d like to know more about. One of your good suggestions is one that’s more political than legal and so we’ll tackle that one today.

REICHARD: Yeah, Debra from Wisconsin asked about “the timing of impeachment proceedings and what sort of chaos this could cause if it occurred during the 2020 campaign.”

She went to propose a hypothetical: If a president were removed from office late in a campaign season, what would happen? Would voters have to write in another candidate’s name? 

Well, answering that question requires a survey of the political situation. And a survey of the present requires some background.

EICHER: So here we go: Some Democrats have talked openly about impeaching President Trump since the moving van arrived at the White House. Texas Democratic Congressman Al Green introduced articles of impeachment as early as December 2017. 

Green’s eight-page resolution cited “high misdemeanors,” but did not touch anything related to Russia. Instead it focused on the president’s behavior while in office.

GREEN: Resolved, that Donald John Trump, president of the United States, is unfit to be president.

Even the top two Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer opposed the resolution. A lopsided vote followed. Only 58 lawmakers voted with Green.

That effectively killed impeachment talk for the next 15 months.

REICHARD: Then came the Mueller report this past March. It found no Trump campaign collusion with Russia and did not reach a conclusion on obstruction of justice. 

Attorney General Bill Barr—along with many Republicans in Congress—pronounced the case closed.

BARR: As you will see, the special counsel’s report states that his— quote—“investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

EICHER: While the central findings of the Mueller report deflated Democrats, impeachment calls grew anyway.

Here’s Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president.

WARREN: If any other human being in this country had done what’s documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail.

Those calls have now grown to 80 Democrats in the House, plus one Republican. That’s according to New York Times tracking. 

But Speaker Pelosi remains steadfastly opposed, and she says impeachment must be bipartisan. 

Joining us now to talk about this further is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s also a columnist for The Washington Post

Henry, good morning!

OLSEN: Good morning! 

EICHER: Well, you’re just back from overseas, so “good morning, good afternoon, good evening” probably doesn’t mean a lot at this point. 

OLSEN: That’s right. Good afternoon, good evening, good night.

EICHER: Right, well, Henry, let’s start with the state of play in the House. Eighty lawmakers supporting impeachment sounds like a lot. It’s a third of the Democrats. Do you say a third full, or two-thirds empty?

OLSEN: I’d say two-thirds empty. We’ve always known that the Democrats on the left have wanted to impeach Trump. They’ve wanted to impeach Trump since before he took the oath of office. Nothing has changed with that. 

And that means there’s pressure on Pelosi to give the base what they want. But she knows as well as anybody that the American people are not there emotionally. The swing voters who made the Democratic majority possible are not there. So she’s finely balanced on the high-wire, trying to negotiate both sides. And so far has successfully done it. 

EICHER: And that’s really interesting, too, just the numbers. Because we’re talking about 80, or one-third of the Democrats but then roughly two dozen of these centrists who simply don’t want to go down that road. Speaker Pelosi has referred to them as “majority-makers.” So are they the ones who explain her reluctance to pursue impeachment?

OLSEN: I would say they’re more the symbol than the cause, which is to say that the sort of voter who made those members possible, and the sort of district who made those numbers possible, are the sort of people who the Democrats need to win the White House. 

So, they could be non-vocal or they could be vocal, but Pelosi understands the political calculus, which is nothing that threatens those voters that made those members possible should be enacted because the alternative is turning the levers of government over to the Republicans. 

EICHER: OK, for historical context: the House has voted to impeach two presidents—Andrew Johnson just after the Civil War, and then Bill Clinton in 1998. 

But neither of those men was ultimately removed from office. That’s because the House simply starts the process. It’s the Senate that votes on whether or not to remove an impeached president from office. 

So what’s the lay of the land in the Senate right now? 

OLSEN: Well, Republicans are not going to go for it. They’re not going to go for it as long as this president is sitting where he is. That he is sitting roughly at 44 percent in job approval rating. And he is well into the 80s among Republicans. 

Richard Nixon was at neither when he resigned. And Bill Clinton was well above that and no Democrat broke rank because they didn’t want to be sacrificial lambs, which would destroy their ability to win reelection. So there’s right now 0.0 chance of actually removing him from office. 

EICHER: OK, so it’s very unlikely at this point, but I do want to get the answer to our listener question. 

Let’s say somehow the Senate did vote to remove the president very late in the campaign season. At what point would it be too late for Republicans to put another name on the ballot? 

OLSEN: It would obviously be a state-by-state question. States have different balloting deadlines and they also have different requirements for how one replaces a name.

It could very well be that impeachment does not—I’d have to go check and see if removal from office actually precludes you from running again. That’s not something I’ve researched in awhile. 

But even if it’s presumed that it did, what it means is that in any race, what you’re really voting for is electors. And you are voting for electors in the guise of the person whose name is on the ballot. But the electors would still be there. They’ve been chosen to be loyal and presumably they would still be loyal to the new president and presumptive Republican nominee who is Mike Pence. And I think it would be a campaign that would say vote for Trump to get Pence. 

And whether that’s persuasive or not to voters—I think it would be to most loyal Republicans—whether it’s persuasive to the Obama-Trump voters who made Trump possible is a political, not a legal question. 

EICHER: Looking ahead, we now have Special Counsel Robert Mueller scheduled to testify before the House later this month. 

Democrats want to grill him on why he didn’t make a recommendation on obstruction of justice. Republicans want to know about the pretenses for starting the investigation in the first place and when he knew there was a lack of evidence on the collusion question. 

So the knives are out on both sides. But do you think we’ll learn much that’s new? 

OLSEN: I think we’ll learn very little. I think Robert Mueller’s appearing because he doesn’t want to be held in contempt of Congress and the Democrats are going to issue a subpoena and force him to do so. 

I think what you will get is a stern lecture from Robert Mueller to the Democrats that says regardless of my personal opinions, the fact is there’s a political remedy to deal with presidential misconduct. It’s in the congressional purview and I’m neither going to tell you how to do your job or advise you whether you should do your job. 

And with respect to the Republicans, it’s an adage in law: don’t ask a question in cross examination that you don’t know the answer to. Everything that I have heard with respect to Republicans is a fishing expedition. And you should never give somebody who’s not on your side a fishing expedition. 

They should limit what they do. They should not try to score political points that they are unlikely to win and that can give—since you don’t know what you don’t know—that would give Mueller a chance to turn the tables on you. Just generally shut up. Try and poke holes in what the Democrats are saying. Don’t establish a counter-narrative and get the day over with. 

EICHER: Let’s talk before I let you go, Henry, about the two debates that the Democrats had last week. What was your sense overall of the two en masse sort of debates. Who’s up? Who’s down? What’s your sense of it? 

OLSEN: You know, I don’t think that it’s going to change things dramatically. I think, obviously, it was a good night for Kamala Harris, that she was able to get some much-needed headlines. 

The reality is that these things tend not to last unless they’re followed up by future developments, which makes July even more important. 

So, what we’ve got is a Democratic Party that is well to the left of where the swing voters that they need are. And if that continues, I don’t know if it would put Biden under pressure for the nomination, but it definitely creates dynamics in the Democratic party that become difficult to defuse in time for the general election.

EICHER: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center—sometimes called the EPPC. Henry, thanks for your time today. Always great to talk with you. Welcome back to the USA.

OLSEN: Thank you very much!

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) President Donald Trump walks down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Md., Sunday, June 30, 2019. 

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