WASHINGTON — If one thing has become clear in the seven weeks since the release of the Mueller report, it’s that House Democratic leaders are afraid impeaching the president could backfire with independent and Republican voters.
The Freedom Caucus, a bloc of roughly three dozen conservative Republicans led by some of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in Congress, repeatedly sought to impeach officials in the Obama administration. They pushed to impeach attorney general Eric Holder in 2013. They wanted to impeach Environmental Protection Administration head Gina McCarthy in 2015. Last year, they even introduced articles of impeachment against deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
And instead of suffering backlash from party leaders or Republican voters, the most conservative wing of the GOP emerged from the 2016 election more powerful than ever, with the ear of the president and enough members to influence legislation.
They came closest to impeaching an executive branch official for the first time in more than a century with a 2016 House resolution targeting John Koskinen, who was then the head of the IRS.
The IRS had unfairly scrutinized the applications of conservative political activist groups seeking tax-exempt status, and while the supposed scandal occurred before Koskinen took office in 2013, conservatives still accused him of high crimes and misdemeanors for allegedly obstructing their investigation.
They said he misled Congress in 2014 when he promised to turn over all of an IRS official’s emails. It later turned out that some emails had been accidentally deleted. Koskinen maintains he didn’t know that when he made the promise. Either way, conservatives felt they had enough evidence to impeach.
“Here is the standard for removing someone from office,” Freedom Caucus leader Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on the House floor a few months before the impeachment vote. “Gross negligence, breach of public trust, dereliction of duty.”
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said Congress owed it to the American people and to the Constitution “to hold perpetrators of this tyrannical abuse of power accountable and to make sure it never happens again.”
And Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), who has since joined the Trump administration, gave an impassioned speech about how Congress was a co-equal branch that needed to be a check against the executive and judiciary. “Yet Congress has shriveled up and atrophied so much,” he said, “the American people have given up on Congress ever doing anything about corruption at high levels of our government.”
The accusation of “tyrannical abuse” hinged on Koskinen failing to turn over deleted emails ― very different from the current president instructing his administration not to comply with any congressional subpoena, or from holding Trump accountable for the potential instances of obstruction of justice detailed in the Mueller report.
Republicans proceeded with impeachment in the face of an internal inspector general report explicitly stating that after interviewing dozens of IRS officials, investigators couldn’t find a cover-up. “No evidence was uncovered that any IRS employees had been directed to destroy or hide information,” the inspector general said.
Even the underlying offense ― which, again, occurred before Koskinen took office ― turned out to be less offensive than it seemed. The IRS had used improper shortcuts to scrutinize conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, but a 2017 follow-up by the inspector general revealed the IRS had used the same strategy against liberal organizations. The IRS targeted groups that had the words “Tea Party” in their names, but it also, for example, improperly targeted outfits suspected of being successors to ACORN.
“The basic premise that this had all been driven by political forces outside the IRS never held up at all,” Koskinen told HuffPost.
In the end, the measure to impeach Koskinen failed 72-342.
Republicans didn’t tear out their hair over the politics of these impeachment attempts. They didn’t worry about whether impeachment would be successful or whether it would actually remove the person from office. They simply moved forward, and voters essentially shrugged.
If Democrats are looking for a more direct parallel than little-noticed efforts to impeach Obama officials, there is, of course, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999. That case centered on Clinton lying about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Democrats look at the Clinton impeachment with some fear. Clinton’s approval rating was around an all-time high after he was impeached in late 1998, and Republicans lost four seats in the House elections that year, even though the party not in control of the White House tends to pick up seats during the midterms. But the results of the 2000 elections were that George W. Bush took the White House, Republicans lost two seats in the House (and retained the majority), and the Senate was split 50/50.
The truth is, voters were essentially unmoved. And last month, a FiveThirtyEight examination of a potential impeachment backlash concluded that Trump’s approval rating likely wouldn’t go up, and the long-term electoral effects would be minimal.
Other, more recent cases of congressional overreach ― remember Benghazi? ― have also had little electoral impact, though they energized the Republican base. The Benghazi scandal barely registered with swing voters in the 2016 cycle, partly because there wasn’t much there, but also partly because Americans had already made up their minds.
As Democrats weigh whether to open an impeachment inquiry, it’s important to note how low a standard Republicans have used to impeach officials in the past, particularly the Republicans most adamantly cheering on Trump as he ignores congressional subpoenas and instructs his administration not to comply with Congress.
Conservatives like Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) — two Republicans who are in frequent touch with Trump — once led the charge to get White House officials to turn over documents and comply with subpoenas. From their perches on the House Oversight Committee, they sparred often with the Obama administration over document requests. Now they lead the Trump administration’s defense against such requests from Democrats, with Trump’s personal attorneys adopting their rhetoric in legal filings.
Koskinen said it’s “odd” that Jordan and his fellow Republican hard-liners are now so dismissive of impeachment.
“The positions don’t appear to be consistent,” he said.
Jordan and Meadows declined to comment on their IRS impeachment efforts, but it’s clear they’re no longer applying the same standard of impeaching administration officials who don’t comply with congressional subpoenas now that Trump is in office.
Would Voters Punish Democrats?
A ragtag group of conservatives attempting to impeach a Cabinet official, of course, isn’t the same as House Democrats trying to impeach the president, but there’s little evidence the electoral consequences would be different.
Trump’s favorability ratings have been stuck in the low 40s, and support for impeachment is rising, even as Democratic leaders have muddled the message and exacerbated a split among Democrats on the issue. One poll found that 76 percent of Americans said the Mueller report did not change their mind on whether Trump should be impeached.
But that may be partly due to Democrats downplaying evidence in the report that Trump obstructed justice. Proceeding with impeachment hearings could educate a public that has had its views largely shaped by a misleading summary from Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s own refrain of “No collusion, no obstruction.”
Democratic leaders remain concerned that if the House impeached Trump but the Senate voted not to convict and remove him from office, it would be seen as an acquittal and might anger wavering voters.
But that wasn’t the reaction to the GOP’s repeated attempts to impeach Obama officials. Voters didn’t punish conservatives or Republicans writ large, nor did they view a vote not to impeach Koskinen as some sort of exoneration (though the Cabinet-level impeachment efforts garnered less attention than a presidential impeachment would).
In his 400-page report, special counsel Robert Mueller said the president repeatedly tried to interfere with his investigation, even ordering Don McGahn, the White House counsel at the time, to fire Mueller, and then instructing McGahn to lie about it.
Mueller detailed 10 separate instances where Trump may have obstructed justice, and he made it clear — in his report and during a statement last week — that he did not believe he had the power to indict Trump.
“The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” Mueller said last week, citing a prior Justice Department legal analysis. “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
Mueller’s clarification that he doesn’t believe he has the power to hold Trump accountable — and that only Congress does — prompted a new round of Democrats coming out for impeachment. But it did little to move House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who would only say that “Congress will continue to investigate.”
Mueller noted in his report that obstruction of an investigation is still a crime even if the person is not guilty of an underlying offense. In the president’s case, Mueller said he didn’t find enough evidence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to help Trump win in 2016 ― but he also made it clear he wasn’t clearing Trump of wrongdoing, and that it’s up to Congress to decide.
As for Koskinen, the House voted against impeachment, but conservatives still wanted him removed. After Trump won, they pushed him to fire Koskinen before his five-year term could expire in November 2017.
But Trump didn’t do it. Trump knew Koskinen from way back when he’d helped the future president make his first big real estate deal for the Commodore Hotel in New York City, and Koskinen told HuffPost that Trump called him the day before his inauguration and they had a friendly conversation.
“He just wanted me to know he thought the impeachment didn’t make any sense,” Koskinen said.