It is a question that is as unthinkable as it is unavoidable.
Could it be that rather than fearing impeachment, U.S. President Donald J. Trump actually may be daring the Democrats to take the fateful but dangerous step of initiating the procedure that could result in his removal from office?
Impeachment is in the air in the American capital, with the forbidding and, until recently, the forbidden word on the lips of growing numbers of Democrats, one House Republican – and the President himself.
Mr. Trump refers to it with mounting frequency, expressing astonishment that it could even be considered after the exoneration he believes he received in the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller. Last week, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan became the first Republican to call for the impeachment of Mr. Trump. The President dismissed him as a ‘’loser’’ and a ‘’total lightweight.’’
But Mr. Trump – knowing that the chances of his critics wrestling up the 67 votes in the GOP-controlled Senate required for his removal from office are close to nil right now – may believe his political prospects could actually be enhanced if the Democrats move to impeach him. And perhaps the two dozen congressional Democrats calling for his impeachment – former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, a presidential candidate, joined them this week – are walking into a trap.
‘’They want to bring impeachment proceedings?’’ former GOP governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, an ardent Trump supporter, said in an interview to be aired Sunday on New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV. ‘’Let’s go. The sooner the better."
Customarily, U.S. presidents recoil in horror with even the distant prospect of impeachment, fearing to be coupled in history with the reviled Andrew Johnson, who was impeached but not removed from office in 1868; with the disgraced Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 rather than face impeachment; or with the redoubtable Bill Clinton, impeached in 1998 for actions growing out of sexual relations with a White House intern.
But Mr. Trump, whose political success is grounded in defying expectations and conventions, knows that impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee would dominate the summer and fall. They would distract from the campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination and from the party’s early debates, six of which are scheduled for the remainder of the year, the first two planned for June 26 and June 27.
Moreover, there could be other advantages for the President in an impeachment offensive that doesn’t result in his conviction in the Senate – which may be why he is courting confrontation by refusing to allow aides to appear before congressional committees, fighting the release of his income taxes and records from his accounting firm, and defying subpoenas for documents.
Any one of those actions would fan the ire of members of Congress, jealous of their rights as an equal of the executive branch in the American system and of their oversight prerogatives. The combination of them has rendered Democrats furious.
“He’s trying to shut down investigations, which are very bad for Trump,’’ Democratic Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. ‘’He’s trying to avoid Constitutional obligations and in any way co-operating with these investigations – and we cannot avoid taking every step to get to the bottom of all this.’’
But impeachment proceedings would provide a foil for Mr. Trump, whose appeal to his political base is never so alluring as when he has a vulnerable target. There may be, in fact, no target quite so appealing as liberal Democrats from urban areas and the coasts whom he can cast as part of a conspiracy – a co-ordinated effort to overturn the 2016 election.
Not for him are the grave fears of impeachment that haunted his predecessors.
The day after he revealed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy told his brother that if he didn’t respond properly to the crisis, his Republican rivals would “move to impeach right after’’ the looming 1962 midterm congressional elections. Four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson told his mentor and confessor, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, that he could not even entertain the notion of withdrawing from Vietnam. “They’d impeach a President...that would run out [of the war], wouldn’t they?’’ Impeachment was in Mr. Nixon’s mind when he vowed, “I am not going to be the first American president to lose a war,” though the 37th president would face impeachment for his war against Constitutional norms in the Watergate scandal.
Mr. Trump could also use impeachment as a battering ram against the very political figures determined to remove him from office.
The political effects of the last two episodes of chief executives threatened with impeachment differed substantially. The Democrats gained 49 House seats and four Senate seats in the 1974 midterm elections, an astonishing political harvest in the wake of Mr. Nixon’s resignation. But Mr. Clinton’s Democratic allies picked up five House seats, a small number but an unprecedented victory nonetheless; the midterms of 1998 were the only time in American history that the party controlling the White House gained House seats in the sixth year of a presidency.
The grave and historic price the Republicans paid for impeaching Mr. Clinton is within living memory of many Democrats on Capitol Hill, especially Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and the lawmaker who would conduct the impeachment proceedings, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold L. Nadler of New York. All served in the House during the Clinton episode.
Both Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Nadler have used the term “constitutional crisis,’’ words last employed as Mr. Nixon faced impeachment. Though Mr. Hoyer said this week that Mr. Trump was “conducting one of the biggest coverups of any administration in the history of the United States’’ and said that most Democrats believe the President deserved impeachment, he added, ‘’I don’t think we’re there at this point in time.’’
But Mr. Trump is pushing them there, and perhaps wagering that it is to his advantage to do so.