Can Democrats keep avoiding impeachment talk?

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

image copyrightGetty Images

As the swirl of legal drama around Donald Trump grows, it will be increasingly difficult for Democrats to avoid direct questions about the "I word" - impeachment - even if the topic makes many on the left squirm with discomfort.

On Tuesday Donald Trump's former personal lawyer stood in a New York courtroom and said then-candidate Trump directed him to commit campaign finance crimes.

If Mr Cohen is to be believed - and his lawyer has produced an audio recording that appears to be at least partial corroboration - it draws the president closer to what is now-documented illegal activity.

What does US law say?

There's an open legal debate about whether a sitting president can be indicted for a crime. The constitution and federal law are silent on the issue, but Department of Justice guidelines say no.

The consensus recourse for a president who is accused of serious misdeeds is impeachment by a majority of the House of Representatives and a vote to remove by two-thirds of the US Senate.

This, obviously, is both a tall order and an intrinsically political act.

While there has been talk among liberal ranks about impeachment virtually from the day Mr Trump took office, mainstream Democratic politicians have been extremely uneasy to address the subject directly.

What are Democrats saying?

Back in May, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi called impeachment a "divisive issue" that is "not the path the party should go on" leading up to November's mid-term congressional elections.

Perhaps it's because Democrats are in the minority in both the House and Senate, so without Republican support such an act would be doomed before it starts. Or it could be a calculation on the part of party officials that, at the moment, polls show their side is much more enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming elections.

The thought that the president is in political peril could rally his conservative base and drive them to the polls in equally large numbers.

The conservative effort to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 is widely viewed as having backfired on the party, leading to an unusually strong mid-term performance by Democrats in a year that, historically, should have favoured the out-of-the-White-House Republicans.

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe president's former lawyer Michael Cohen says then-candidate Trump directed him to commit campaign finance crimes

For whatever reason, Democrats - for the most part - have dodged and ducked. The impeachment question, however, is going to come up with greater frequency.

"I expect that we will confront it," Democratic Congressman David Price of North Carolina told the Raleigh News and Observer on Tuesday.

"At a minimum, we're going to confront the need to investigate a great many things."

In a television interview on Wednesday morning, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was repeatedly pressed to say whether she thought the Cohen allegations, alone, merited impeachment hearings.

The possible 2020 Democratic presidential front-runner said she wasn't "nervous" about discussing the topic, but that it was important to let the special counsel investigation conclude before deciding on a "next step".

"We have an ongoing investigation that has been in place that is much more sweeping, that is much broader than simply the one thing that happened in New York court yesterday," she told CNN.

"If you really want to look at what Donald Trump has done and what kind of responsibility he should have, let's get that investigation finished as well."

Who is calling for impeachment?

That may not be good enough for some on the left. California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, a big-money Democratic donor who has spent nearly a year gathering more than five million signatures on a petition calling for the president's impeachment, said the Cohen and Manafort cases bolster his arguments.

"The evidence continues to mount up," he said in a video statement on Tuesday. "The question is when will Congress pay attention."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionPhilanthropist Tom Steyer has spent nearly a year collecting signatures for a petition calling for the president's impeachment

At a progressive event earlier this month, Mr Steyer accused the Democratic "establishment" of agreeing with him in private, while giving long-winded excuses in public.

"Their message to me and the 5.5 million Americans demanding Donald Trump's impeachment is that it's bad politics, it's off message, and it will galvanize the Republicans," he said.

Following the double court-room drama on Tuesday, Mr Steyer has pledge to spend at least $1m on a new round of television advertisements calling for Mr Trump's removal.

What are Republicans saying?

Complicating matters is a certain amount of awakening on the right, among disaffected conservatives, to the thought that maybe impeachment is a realistic option.

While the number of Republican officeholders publicly saying such a thing can be counted on one hand, pundits and commentators are beginning to chime in.

"I've been sceptical about the wisdom and merit of impeachment. Cohen's guilty plea changes that," New York Times columnist Brett Stephens tweeted on Tuesday.

"The president is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours. He should resign his office or be impeached and removed from office."

It seems unlikely in the extreme that Republicans in Congress would even entertain such notions for the time being.

If their numbers are thinned in a November Democratic mid-term wave, and they conclude they're better off politically without Mr Trump than with him, that calculus could change.

Whatever the outcome, it's in the Republican Party's interests to get impeachment on the table as an election issue as quickly as possible. Democrats, on the other hand, are conflicted - and it shows.