A rumor circulating around Washington, D.C. is that Democrats intend to impeach President Trump by Thanksgiving with a trial in the Senate before Christmas. Based on conversations I have had with Democrats and Republicans, I suspect the timeline is slightly off.
To understand the timeline, we should understand the process. When Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, Republicans had a special counsel report with which they could base their impeachment. According to a senior Democrat staffer I talked to, the better model for Democrats against President Trump is Richard Nixon.
In February of 1974, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 803, “A Resolution providing appropriate power to the Committee on the Judiciary to conduct an investigation of whether sufficient grounds exist to impeach Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States.” That resolution began the formal process of impeaching the President with open hearings as the House Judiciary Committee began drafting articles of impeachment. They never got that far because Nixon resigned.
Prior to passing H.R. 803, the House of Representatives had been meeting mostly behind closed doors interviewing witnesses and securing documents. The process was done mostly in secret. Democrats controlled everything. Republicans mostly complained.
The Democrat I talked to said the same thing is happening now. Unlike with Clinton and very much like with Nixon, there was no special prosecutor investigation and report. The Democrats had to do the work themselves with Nixon. Today’s Democrats see themselves doing very much the same thing. Republicans see it as both a fishing expedition and a messaging exercise designed to hurt the President’s re-election, not actually remove him from office.
Republicans say the Democrats do not have the votes for a formal process. Democrats say they have the votes, but they want to build their factual basis to pick up even more Democrats. Democrats privately say they are sure they have a majority vote but they want all the Democrats on board. Republicans privately say they are worried about some of the nineteen Republicans who are retiring. They think if the Democrats do drag this out and do a formalized process they might be able to pick up some of those Republicans when it comes to passing the articles of impeachment.
Based on all my conversations, my best guess is that the Democrats are going to drag out their fact-finding mission until Thanksgiving, then spend the period of Thanksgiving to Christmas building articles of impeachment. They would then refer the matter to the Senate at the end of the year and the Senate would take it up after the first of the year.
Senate Republicans are increasingly likely to require a trial. They lack the votes to dismiss the matter outright. Likewise, there are some Republicans who would help the Democrats. Based on several conversations I have had with Republican senators, I believe the Democrats would head into an impeachment trial with a half dozen Republicans willing to honestly consider impeachment. They need more than that, but an impeachment trial presided over not by McConnell, but by Chief Justice John Roberts, could get them more votes. Even if the Democrats did not get the requisite two-thirds vote, a bipartisan vote for impeachment would still hurt the President.
Conventional wisdom is that impeachment helped Bill Clinton. But Clinton had time to prepare counter-arguments to the Starr Report before the House of Representatives even took up the matter. He also got a 50-50 split in the Senate, not a majority against him. He also was not up for re-election. It affected him enough that Al Gore would not campaign with him in 2000 and it certainly cost Al Gore votes.
To get any Republican support, however, the Democrats have to be grown up. Having Adam Schiff as the face of their effort hurts them. Dragging out the process right now does make it look like a fishing expedition. Republicans in the Senate are worried about the process. Most of them would very much like to support President Trump. Some of them, though, are starting to tire of him and just need an excuse. That should worry the White House.