When Seattle Congress member Pramila Jayapal was asked about how Democrats plan to push ahead on impeaching President Trump, she gave what to my ears was exactly the wrong answer.
“We don’t need to investigate any longer,” she told The Seattle Times. “The crimes have been committed in clear daylight.”
Jayapal, who sits on the Judiciary Committee that may be tasked with drafting any specific impeachment charges, elaborated to Q13 TV news in Seattle: “It will be very quick and very expeditious,” she said. “I want to say that. It will not drag out a long time … we will be quick about this.”
That’s a pretty good summary of why the last impeachment of a president failed.
As a reporter I covered that impeachment — the only one of a president we’ve had since the 1800s. And Jayapal’s comments recall a prime reason why it never swayed the public, and why President Bill Clinton kept his job: Because of a sense it was a partisan crusade.
To say “we don’t need to investigate any longer” feels wrong as a practical matter — surely there’s more to be learned? But mostly it’s just terrible politics.
As I saw firsthand in the Clinton impeachment, through months of House hearings and a six-week Senate trial in 1999, the real jury wasn’t anyone at the Capitol. It was the public.
The view of the people about the last impeachment ended up being quite nuanced. For instance an incredible 79% of the public agreed Clinton was guilty of the main charge — that he lied under oath (imagine getting 79% agreement today on anything).
But at the same time, only 32% believed Clinton should be removed from office for it, and as a result, he wasn’t.
There were two big reasons Clinton won in the end. First, the thing he lied about, having an affair, was seen as not relevant to his official duties. That’s a big difference between that impeachment and this one, as Trump’s machinations with Ukraine are no sideshow to his job, they are central to it.
But two, the investigation back in the 1990s was seen as a partisan-fueled witch hunt.
The biggest loser in the Clinton saga wasn’t Clinton, not even close. According to polls it was the accuser, Ken Starr, the independent counsel who pursued Clinton’s sex life with such zeal. The second biggest loser was congressional Republicans, who took Starr’s findings and in the span of just a few months rammed through two articles of impeachment.
So the public felt the guy who was out of control sexually was far less of a problem than the people who were out of control politically.
One brilliant Gallup poll question from back then stuck with me, because it captured this perfectly. Americans said they felt Starr and the Republicans had acted more like “persecutors,” not “prosecutors.”
This is a key distinction that Democrats would be wise to heed. Are you being fair? Are you thorough and deliberative? Or are you perceived as out to settle partisan scores.
Personally I strongly suspect that the intelligence whistleblower is right that Trump was abusing his powers to try to gain a campaign advantage. I suspect this because a) there’s evidence of this already, as Jayapal was suggesting and b) Trump’s tried similar things before (his old personal lawyer, the one who paid off the porn star, is sitting in a New York prison due to their illegal efforts to meddle with the last election).
But “we don’t need to investigate any longer,” or “we will be quick about this” ignores all the questions about this scandal. Such as: Did Trump really withhold aid to Ukraine as a lever to get dirt on his rival? Who is paying Rudy Giuliani, and for what? Why does the president feel he can pledge to another country the services of the U.S. attorney general, who is supposed to be independent and not some political valet?
As with Clinton, it’s a longshot to remove Trump from office anyway. But answers to these questions could go a long way toward building a case to the real jury — which gets its own chance to render a verdict next November.