Impeachment is usually the most embarrassing and damaging thing that can happen to a President of the United States.
But for President Donald Trump, not so much. Incredibly, his likely impeachment gives the president more opportunities than liabilities.
That’s mostly because of a mix of timing and the unique nature of the Trump presidency.
The most important difference between the Trump impeachment and the other presidents who have faced this process is the fact that it comes in the midst of a reelection campaign. It may seem like trying to run for reelection during an impeachment trial in the Senate is like driving with one flat tire. But for a man whose brief political career has been entirely about a virulent campaign against the political establishment, fighting a battle against a series of entrenched politicians fits right into his brand.
Most presidential incumbents have to work hard to continue to promote the popular “outsider” persona after four years of being in the White House. But Washington’s continued refusal to accept this president had already made that task easy for the Trump campaign.
This has already been a contentious and pugnacious presidency, with Trump, his political opponents, and critics in the news media never pausing from their battles with each other since day one. Now, the Trump campaign is simply using the impeachment as an effective messaging and fundraising tool. A presidential election is already a de facto trial for the American voters deciding how to judge the president’s first term. So what’s one more trial, especially one that’s going on at the same time?
But what about the sheer embarrassment of being impeached? Is that a game-breaker for the president?
We’re talking about a man who still won the 2016 election despite the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes that contained probably the most embarrassing things any presidential candidate has ever been caught saying. Embarrassing Donald Trump simply hasn’t worked as an effective way to defeat him politically.
It also helps that this impeachment is coming at a time when the U.S. economy and the stock market are showing historic strength. The much better than expected November jobs report is just the latest example of that, and Trump has routinely pointed to the good economic numbers to change the subject from the details of the impeachment inquiry.
It shouldn’t go unnoticed that while the impeachment process for President Richard Nixon came during hard economic times in the U.S., Bill Clinton’s impeachment was in the midst of an economic boom. The fact that Clinton survived his impeachment while Nixon was forced to resign is related to those historical economic realities.
But the above arguments are just examples of why Trump has some immunity from most of the impeachment pitfalls. The other key question is how will the impeachment affect his policy choices and ability to govern going forward if he’s reelected?
For Presidents Clinton and Nixon, their impeachment processes forced them to basically give up their domestic legislative agendas and focus on foreign policy. Trump seems to have already made that pivot when the 2018 midterm elections handed the House of Representatives to the Democrats. Most of his focus has been on the China trade battle since then. While there have been a few grumblings about the effect of the trade war from Congress, Senator Chuck Schumer’s famous tweet expressing support for the president still stands out as the most significant comment from Congressional Democrats on the matter.
Could the impeachment process somehow embolden the Democratic leadership to change its tune and openly undermine President Trump’s China negotiations?
Here again, timing is really on Trump’s side. With the Hong Kong protests still raging and concern growing over China’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims, the Democrat-controlled House has just passed two virtually unanimous resolutions condemning Beijing. No matter what happens in future impeachment hearings and the likely Senate trial, China does not seem like the issue where Trump will face new opposition.
It’s more likely that White House hopes for a definitive infrastructure bill or a prescription drug coverage overhaul will remain dead in the water. But the key word there is “remain,” because those legislative efforts were already in longshot territory before anyone ever heard of the White House phone calls to Ukraine. Had this impeachment drama played out a year or two ago, being forced to abandon those efforts in Congress would seem like a more serious political defeat. It’s another example of fortunate timing for Trump.
But one area where there is no silver impeachment lining is the Trump historical legacy. If the House follows through with its likely decision to impeach him, that fact will be prominently mentioned in every historical reference to Trump. That’s going to be true no matter how well the economy continues to chug along or how the China trade negotiations play out.
Don’t expect Trump to get the friendly pass a decent chunk of the news media and presidential historians have given Bill Clinton over the years despite his impeachment. Trump is much more likely to get the Nixon treatment; where his impeachment will be brought up as regularly as Nixon’s resignation and the Watergate scandal.
But as much as historical legacy clearly matters to this president and all presidents, a flawed legacy was probably guaranteed for Trump long ago. As it stands now, the future negatives seem like a small price to pay compared to the multiple ways this impeachment actually works for his political present.