The Democratic case against impeaching President Trump

President Donald Trump speaks during a joint press conference with three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) in the East Room of the White House on April 3, 2018 in Washington, DC. (PHOTO: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday morning, longtime Democratic consultant — and CNN senior political commentator — David Axelrod tweeted a thought on a New York Times story about Republicans pushing the idea that if Democrats take control of Congress, they will move to impeach President Donald Trump. Tweeted Axelrod: “Dems should NOT commit to impeachment unless & until there’s a demonstrable case for one. It is not just a matter of politics. It’s a matter of principle. If we ‘normaliize’ impeachment as a political tool, it will be another hammer blow to our democracy.”

That tweet generated lots of heated reaction on the liberal left. Tom Steyer, a wealthy California businessman who has been running national TV ads touting the case for impeachment, responded this way to Axelrod: “Let’s be clear: Trump has already committed 8 impeachable offenses. What are we waiting for? If you haven’t signed on yet, now is the time. https://www.needtoimpeach.com/”

I reached out to Axelrod in hopes of having a broader conversation about his views in impeachment, Trump and the Democratic base. He agreed. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: You made clear you think a push for impeachment by Democrats is a mistake, strategically. Why?

Axelrod: As a political matter, the voters who will decide which party runs the House next year want checks and balances. They’re not signing up for automatic impeachment.

That is not to say if (special counsel Robert) Mueller comes back with a case that this won’t change. But to commit to such a step now, absent his conclusions, would seem to many outside the base of the Democratic Party to be a nakedly political act that portends another season of chaos and inaction in Washington.

Cillizza: You also made the case it’s a mistake of “principle” because it would “normalize” the idea of impeachment in politics. Aren’t we already there? (Clinton was impeached in the House. Bush faced regular threats of impeachment as did Obama.)

Axelrod: First, let’s note that the Clinton impeachment turned out to be a political quagmire for the Republicans. And, yes, there were strident voices in both parties who called for the impeachment of Bush and Obama, but neither party ran on an impeachment pledge and no serious effort was made to impeach either one.

If, as its first order of business, a Democratic House moves to impeach the President based on what we know today, I think there would be a tremendous backlash.

We’ve had two presidential impeachments in our history, neither of which ended in conviction.

If the impression of nearly half the country is that the President for whom they voted was purged for partisan reasons rather than proven offenses, impeachment will become a “normalized” tool in our politics, which would be a disaster for our democracy.

One of the things that most alarms me about this President is his wanton disregard for democratic institutions — the courts and rule of law and a free press, among others. These impulses may well lead to an impeachment in the future.

But if we, who believe in these institutions, are provoked to misuse this extraordinary power, or act prematurely, we will have joined Trump in undermining our democracy. We also will guarantee that impeachment will become a standard tool in the partisan arsenal.

Cillizza: Were you surprised by the reaction of liberals — most notably Tom Steyer — to your tweet? Is the reaction indicative of where the party is today? And is that place a problem for winning future elections?

Axelrod: No, I wasn’t surprised. There is great political currency within the base on this. Mr. Steyer is deftly exploiting it, building up his own name ID and a massive database of millions of names for his future endeavors.

And I do think that there are candidates who will try to make impeachment a litmus test in order to win primaries, which could have some negative implications in the fall.

In the main, however, what I sense is a real hunger for change among Democrats who, whatever intramural sparring about this issue, will come out in large numbers in the fall. The races we’ve seen in ’17 and so far this year bear that out.

Cillizza: Do Democrats run the risk of overplaying their hand against Trump because they dislike him so much personally?

Axelrod: Yes. I think I have been as critical as anyone. But as I said above, the right answer to his fundamentally anti-democratic impulses is not to use them as a justification to cut corners.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “The best way for Democrats to run against Trump and Republicans this fall is ____________.” Now, explain.

Axelrod: “The best way for Democrats to run against Trump and Republicans this fall is to run candidates with strong ties to their communities who are speaking about the problems and concerns that touch the lives of their constituents.”

The two most visible wins for Democrats in recent months were those of Conor Lamb and Doug Jones. Each were grounded in their communities and ran campaigns that focused on the concerns of their constituents. Neither ran on an explicit anti-Trump platform or commitment to impeach or convict the President, yet they certainly benefited from energy among voters who want a check on the President.

The same will be true in every swing district in the country. Democrats will get the benefit of an anti-Trump tide, which the president himself will stoke. But their success will rely on their ability to persuade voters that they will be neither lap dogs for the President nor relentless attack dogs, but common sense, productive representatives of their communities.