The Scott Pruitt theory of Trump’s impeachment.
One of the most frequent themes of the Trump presidency has been the question of impeachment, chiefly when and how Trump could be impeached. This discussion always occurs in a predictable way. Some momentous news event, such as Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, Paul Manafort’s decision to cooperate with Robert Mueller, or news of Mueller’s potential firing, occurs. That news event sets Democrats on fire. Democratic senators start referencing “all of their options,” a euphemism for impeachment. Liberal commentators then go much further in their rhetoric. “The Endgame for Trump Comes Into View,” was the title of a piece by New York Magazine’s Frank Rich after Cohen’s conviction, while Fred Kaplan at Slate and David Frum at The Atlantic continued the theme of connecting Cohen to Trump’s downfall. Even writers in other countries, such as Israel, start discussing the potential effects on their nations of a Trump impeachment.
Not surprisingly, as soon as these takes come out, the more cautious members of the Trump resistance start to push back. Pundits decry impeachment as unlikely. Recently, Matt Ford at the New Republic wrote, “If Democrats retake the House in November, impeachment proceedings are far more likely than they are now. But the party doesn’t appear to be convinced that it’s a politically winning issue so far.” Robert Reich, in his call to “annul” the Trump presidency, went further, arguing that Trump would never be impeached and convicted because of the influence of Fox News and the fact that “even if Democrats flip the House in November, Republicans will almost certainly remain in control of the Senate — and so far they’ve displayed the integrity of lizards.” Recent polls showing Democrats struggling in numerous Senate races only reinforce this fear.
Which side is right? Can Trump be impeached without sparking a massive Republican turnout? And even if he is impeached, is there a plausible scenario in which he can be removed?
The question of Trump’s impeachment is understandably daunting, with a number of different angles and caveats. Back in May, I wrote an article emphasizing the importance of waiting until a critical mass had been reached before even proposing articles of impeachment. I argued that a misstep could have the unintended consequences of 1998, when campaigning on the impeachment of Bill Clinton led to stunning House losses for Republicans. But besides the historical precedent, I was unsure of what Democrats could do to speed up or change the process, and I could not see a plausible scenario in which Democrats could focus on impeachment and withstand Trump’s ability to change the media narrative.
Then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned, and the way that this event unfolded changed my perspective. By all accounts, Pruitt should never have resigned. He was a trusted Trump confidante who gutted the EPA, elated Republican donors, and never considered questioning the president. He was a helpful stooge who could be called upon to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions and end the Russia probe in a timely manner. When his scandals began, he even seemed like just another grifter in a cabinet of like-minded individuals. How, Pruitt’s supporters could ask, were a sound-proof phone booth and first-class flights inherently different from Steve Mnuchin’s trip to view the eclipse or Ben Carson’s expensive office furniture?
But Pruitt was different. The trickle of scandal turned into a flood. Every day, another story broke. Senators began to criticize the Administrator. Comments by lawmakers turned into requests for hearings and new investigations. Inspectors general began releasing even more damning reports. Pruitt kept having new scandals, negative stories that dwarfed whatever impact he had on the environment or whatever positive comments he had about the president. The scandal also distracted from the ways that President Trump hoped to influence the news cycle. This media-attracting power was why Trump finally fired Pruitt after an estimated total of 29 scandals ranging from manipulation of law enforcement to the illicit obtaining of a Chick-fil-a franchise.
This gradual process is the only way that Trump can ever be impeached. Once Democrats take back control of the House, they must work alongside liberal media groups to turn Trump’s scandals into a deluge. They cannot passively allow one or two reports to be released in the middle of July and be done with the matter. Instead, Democrats have to stagger their investigations and hearings. They must release reports weekly, staging large hearings for weeks on end. Finding substantive matters for these hearings should not be difficult. Trump’s failure to divest from his financial interests, connections with Russia, and frequent attempts to obstruct justice all deserve hearings as large as Watergate. If they are all timed correctly in 2019, before the primary process is over and Republicans are stuck with their candidate, they could sink Trump’s approval rating so low that a handful of Senate Republicans might feel as though their only hope in the redistricting year of 2020 might be a Mike Pence presidency.
Trump’s impeachment is by no means guaranteed even with a robust Robert Mueller report and a damning range of congressional hearings. Commentators have marveled at the president’s floor of support and his control over his followers. But at the same time, Trump has never dealt with a house of Congress imbued with subpoena power and an active desire to combat his presidency. In the case of a Democratic House, there is a plausible scenario in which Democrats can use the media, their power, and Trump’s laundry list of scandals to dominate the news cycle and lead the president out of office. They just have to win the midterms first.