If Attorney General Bill Barr had led his press conference last Thursday morning by saying, “The Mueller report reveals that, among other things, on multiple occasions, President Donald Trump ordered Corey Lewandowski and Don McGahn to obstruct justice,” the House of Representatives would be planning Trump’s impeachment hearings, with probably even some Republicans in the House and the Senate putting out statements in support of the hearings.
Spoiler alert: The Mueller report revealed that Donald Trump gave those orders, along with no fewer than 11 other instances of the president attempting to obstruct justice.
From dictating to then-White House Communications Director Hope Hicks a press release to lie about the Trump Tower meeting with Russians offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, that was accepted and attended by Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner; to twice ordering then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller; to telling Corey Lewandowski to force Attorney General Jeff Sessions to thwart the Mueller investigation; to asking NSA chief Admiral Mike Rogers to squelch the investigation by lying to the press and more, Trump, but for Bill Barr throwing himself on a live hand grenade, would likely be tendering his resignation by now—Nixon-style. These individuals, who each were trusted Trump allies and darlings of MAGA world to varying degrees, recounting under oath on live television how the president asked them to break the law, will be even more powerful than reading the Mueller report itself, and with viewership in the stratosphere. It would make Super Bowl ratings look like basic local cable by comparison.
Polls show that Americans who read the Mueller report support impeaching Trump, while those who have not believe Barr’s wild misrepresentation of it. This is a problem, since it’s not reasonable to expect most citizens to read a two-volume, 448-page report.
However, it is more than reasonable—a sure thing, in fact—that dozens of millions of Americans would be glued to their TV to watch live, unfiltered impeachment hearings. And, as happened in the Nixon hearings, that Trump’s approval numbers would plummet as his erstwhile supporters realized they’ve been duped and lied to.
Just after the Mueller report was issued, a Reuters poll showed Trump had lost six points (PDF). Just think what live, televised hearings would do to those numbers. There’s a reason why Rush Limbaugh and Fox News hosts are instructing the Trump cult not to read the redacted report: It clearly shows high crimes and misdemeanors on the part of the president.
Few voters watching Lewandowski, McGahn, Rex Tillerson, and other former Trump staff, Cabinet members, and associates testify under oath how Trump ordered them to lie and obstruct justice will call the investigation a “witch hunt” or claim “libtards” are just “butthurt” over Hillary Clinton’s loss, or that Barr’s fantastical version of the Mueller report was anything other than propaganda.
Why should Democrats spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2020 election cycle trying to educate voters on what the Mueller report says when they can educate them through live, televised, unfiltered impeachment hearings?
Splitting the baby with half-measures like oversight hearings and investigations won’t cut it. House Democrats have a political mandate from the 2018 midterm elections, and a constitutional duty from the Mueller report.
There are also practical matters to consider. Ask any TV news producer which rates: oversight hearings or impeachment hearings.
With people watching the hearings, not just hearing about them, truth and fact will rule over propaganda and lies.
As to the argument that impeachment hearings would rally Trump’s base, the cult-like fervor the Trump base displays for him is enviable. And while much of his social media support is fake, as we now know with the exposing of Russian bots and trolls, mere anecdotal everyday life, tense family Thanksgiving dinners, and Facebooking with old high and school and college friends, are enough to inform that MAGA devotion goes well beyond traditional political tribalism. Yes, some of his rally participants are paid. But these events do tend to attract people who’ve never been politically active before—the holy grail for any politician.
Trump’s base doesn’t just support him. Their devotion is political evangelism.
So—OK. Trump’s base will be energized if he is impeached. But so what? Trump’s base will "rally" if he eats a ham sandwich, or shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. As passionate as that base is, it’s unlikely to grow. House Democrats need to worry about their own base, plus independents and #NeverTrump Republicans and former Republicans. Democratic primary voters may decide they prefer the moxie, strength, patriotism, and resolve of the new freshman class to the old guard seeming fearful that doing the right thing might lose them a few long-held seats.
Finally, whiffing on impeachment in the House out of the expectation the GOP Senate won’t convict is misguided. In fact, they might. In fact, they may force Trump to resign—as Nixon did—so they don’t have to face a trial and have that vote hanging around their 2020 necks with 22 GOP Senate seats to defend.
In fact, impeaching Trump in the House but falling short of the 67 Senate votes needed to convict could be even more politically beneficial to Democrats. Trump would be exposed and damaged, and lose badly in 2020. There would be no President Mike Pence and no pardon, just the prospect of prosecution from a Department of Justice once again concerned with providing it.
But in an era and season of wild scenarios being the norm, how wild would it be if the only way Trump avoids prosecution is if the GOP Senate convicts him so that he can be pardoned by a President Pence? It may ultimately prove to be his only exit ramp.
Ironically, Barr’s role in covering up Trump’s obstruction of justice by lying to the American people about what is in the Mueller report may end up as the deciding factor in the decision to start impeachment proceedings, since the hearings will do what he would not: educate Americans on what the Mueller report actually says.
Trump repeatedly and brazenly tried to get his staff, former staff, Cabinet, and others to lie for him, obstruct justice, help him ingratiate himself with Vladimir Putin, kill the Mueller investigation, and build what can only be described as an autocracy bordering on a dictatorship.
Trump’s outright advocating for Russian interference and the release of stolen emails by WikiLeaks should be enough to write him off. Even without that mountain of evidence, his refusal to acknowledge Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its plans for a repeat performance in 2020 should, as a standalone, be impeachable.
Cheri Jacobus is a political consultant, writer, and commentator.