Where Is the Impeachment Tipping Point?

The longer Democrats deny Trump's wall, the sooner we'll find out.

The impeachment debate has entered a new phase, it seems.

A new focus is on cost-benefit analysis. The thinking is Donald Trump is so out of control and so dangerous that the country must not wait to get rid of him.

Elizabeth Drew, whom I adore, wrote about this just before the New Year. (I mentioned her Times op-ed in Friday’s Editorial Board.) She wrote: “the evident dangers of keeping an out-of-control president in office might well impel politicians in both parties, not without controversy, to want to make a deal to get him out of there.”

On Saturday came David Leonhardt’s turn. The Times columnist, whom I also adore, wrote that, “waiting is too dangerous. The cost of removing a president from office is smaller than the cost of allowing this president to remain.” He added: “No other president since Nixon has engaged in behavior remotely like Trump’s. To accept it without sanction is ultimately to endorse it. Unpleasant though it is to remove a president, the costs and the risks of a continued Trump presidency are worse.”

As of now, cost-benefit analysis isn’t going to persuade the House Democrats. This isn’t news. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that impeachment must be bipartisan. By that, I think she means impeachment isn’t worth the risk to her party if she can’t get enough Republicans on board. Impeachment (by a Democratic House) may be pointless without successful prosecution (by a Republican Senate).

But Drew’s and Leonhardt’s cost-benefit analysis isn’t wrong. It’s just premature.

We haven’t yet reached a tipping point beyond which most people most of the time believe that getting rid of this president is common sense. The question, then, is when that will be. I don’t know, but Pelosi can hurry up the time line. She can magnify the “evident dangers” of Trump’s continuing to be president by continuing to say no.

It wasn’t clear (to me) until recently how important the border wall is to this president. It isn’t only a metaphor to him, as Jonah Goldberg claimed on NPR this morning. The wall is very real, and the Republican base really demands it. The president thinks he must deliver or see his 40 percent approval rating crater. (I believe he also thinks staying in office is the last thing standing between him and prison, but I digress.)

Trump didn’t have leverage going into negotiations over the federal government shutdown, but 17 days into it, he has less. In showing how desperate he is, the president is giving the Democrats more incentive to say no—which forces him to make more dangerous threats, which in turn add to the pile of evidence justifying his removal, which in turn gives the Democrats more incentive to say no.

Last month, the president said he was going to close the entire southern border if the Democrats didn’t agree to more than $5 billion to build the wall. This month, he said he was prepared to keep the government closed for years if he didn’t get the money. The president then threatened to fund the wall by executive fiat by declaring a national emergency. He said that he would invoke the “military version of eminent domain.” (Roll Call reported today he’s now demanding $7 billion for a wall.)

It’s not clear what “military version of eminent domain” means. A president can invoke emergency powers during a national emergency, but the 1976 statute concerns executive decisions made during times of war, not peace. Moreover, he must make the legal case to Congress, and Congress can still override him. (None of this is mention that a 3,000-mile wall would take years to build, undermining “national emergency.”)

One thing is clear: a government seizing private property without cause would be a calamity for any president, more so for a Republican president, whose party claims to be champion of freedom and private property. As usual, Trump overestimates his bargaining power and underestimates the cost of making threats that would, if he had the courage to follow through with them, almost surely pave the way to his doom.

I admit I was skeptical of the border wall being important to Trump’s base. This is, after all, a Republican Party that mistakenly equates fighting with winning. I argued that if Trump can get Fox News to lie for him, to dupe Republican viewers into believing the president is fighting like hell, he could escape this self-made crisis.

But the longer the shutdown goes on, the more it seems that the president really believes the end is nigh if he doesn’t bring the Democrats to heel. (He’s traveling to the border Thursday. By Saturday, the shutdown will be the longest in American history.) The more he threatens the Democrats, the more incentive they have to say no.

And the more these conditions are in play, the more likely it is, it seems to me, we will arrive at a tipping point, in which most people most of the time finally see “the costs and the risks of a continued Trump presidency are worse” than getting rid of him.

—John Stoehr


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