Impeachment Sand Trap: What Are They Thinking?


Nancy Pelosi said it best, back before the Ukraine scandal, as she bloc\ked efforts to impeach Donald Trump for earlier offenses: “He’s not worth it.” Now here she is, along with all the other congressional Democrats, moving to not just impeach Trump again but try to convict him—and surely fail.

Is there something here I’m not getting? Yes, Trump merits impeachment for trying to overturn a legitimate election and the constitutional system underlying it and stoking the attack on the Capitol through two-plus months of false and inciteful claims. Yes, the Constitution and case precedent clearly allow for impeachment after an official, president or otherwise, leaves office; otherwise its provision for excluding those impeached and convicted from holding further office is meaningless. I’ll even concede that the Democrats’ motives are in large part principled and high-minded, that they want to draw a line against such behavior by future demagogues and aspiring dictators.

Still, why? This impeachment was a mug’s game from the start, and it looks even worse now. The notion that 17 Republican senators, led by Mitch McConnell, would vote to convict was always a will-o-the-wisp, driven by reports that McConnell said privately he might be be willing to go along. Fat chance. Sure, McConnell was appalled, as any institutionalist would be, by the Capitol attack and Trump’s refusal to meaningfully condemn or dampen it. But to think he would discover his disinterested inner statesman and do anything not in his and his party’s interest is like expecting the weight of office to make Trump “presidential.” Lucy will always pull the football away from Charlie Brown, and Mitchiavelli will always screw the Democrats.

And what a trap he has them in now—or they have themselves in. Win or lose, the Democrats will look obsessive and vindictive to a large swath of the public, including many who would be glad to see Trump sink into a sandtrap at Mar-a-Lago and never come out. Impeachment makes him relevant again. It will let him play the martyr and renew the ties of grievance that bind his followers. When the Senate acquits him, he and they will claim vindication. Worse than a “distraction,” impeachment will be a lead weight on Team Biden.

If you really think it’s essential to bring Trump to account and bar him from office, that could be more simply, surely and speedily done with a resolution declaring him to have engaged in “insurrection and rebellion” under Article 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. There would be poetic justice to using this post-Civil War measure to address an insurrection that did what the Confederacy failed to do: plant the bars and stars inside the Capitol.

But there are pitfalls there too. The Supreme Court might overturn this unprecedented resolution. If it stood it would be a gift to Marco Rubio and other Republicans, who would have Trump out of the way in 2024 without taking the rap for ejecting him (since the resolution would require only a majority—i.e. Democratic—vote).

Jim Clyburn, whose job as House whip is to count votes and make the legislative wheels turn, saw the trouble ahead and urged another course: impeach and move on. Pass the indictment in the House, then withhold it from the Senate; they could always deliver it if Trump re-emerged and rekindled public outrage with some new indecency. But that option has passed. No way to climb down from the ledge now.

After writing this I read our fearless co-founder David Brewster’s take on an outwardly futile impeachment in which, in fact, “everyone wins.” But the wins all seem to be on the Republican side. So, again—why are the Democrats doing this?

Eric Scigliano
Eric Scigliano
Eric Scigliano has written on varied environmental, cultural and political subjects for many local and national publications. His books include Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, Love War and Circuses (Seeing the Elephant), Michelangelo’s Mountain, Flotsametrics and the Floating World (with Curtis Ebbesmeyer), The Wild Edge, and, newly published, The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon and a Race to Save the Planet.


  1. Why are they doing this? Because our politics are increasingly performative and symbolic, and because polarization is a helluva drug.

  2. I’m guessing the experience of being assaulted was very fresh in the minds of House Members, and that they felt a need to respond to the more progressive share of their own base, which considers even impeachment to be weak tea compared to a well-deserved drawing-and-quartering. Plus, Pelosi herself was personally targeted, and the crowd included people who specifically desired to capture, try, and execute her. I think it got very personal for many of the House Democrats, and this was partly aimed at their Republican colleagues who sided with the President’s claims of a stolen election even after the mob assault, and who refused to wear masks when they were crammed together in lockdown. There wa also a principled belief that if the Legislative branch did not impeach after a direct assault as part of a self-coup attempt, when would it? The best strategy for the Dems now is to describe Trump’s crimes as vividly as possible, and force the Republicans to embrace him as tightly as possible, as publicly as possible, and then hope that Trump goes down over the next few years and takes some of them with him.


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