Should Democrats impeach President Donald Trump? They have the votes in the House to do so, and Trump, with his defiance of subpoenas, is baiting them to try it. Some Democrats argue that even if impeachment hurts them politically and ends with acquittal in the Senate, they have a duty to confront a scofflaw president. But impeachment isn’t the only way to hold Trump accountable. There are smarter ways to go about it, and Democrats can take some important tips from the dozen or so national polls that have been conducted since the April 18 release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Here are some lessons from those polls.
1. Don’t be cowed by the “exoneration” spin. Republicans say Mueller exonerated Trump and the case is closed, but the pubic isn’t buying it. Fewer than 40 percent of Americans say the investigation “cleared” the president. In most polls, a majority says the investigation didn’t clear Trump. Even a significant fraction of Republicans—16 percent to 25 percent, depending on the question—says the investigation didn’t clear the president. And 60 percent of the public says he has lied about the matters under investigation. They don’t trust him.
2. Don’t start an impeachment. Since Mueller’s report came out, seven national pollsters have asked whether Congress should launch impeachment proceedings against Trump. In every sample, a strong plurality—and in most cases, a majority—has said no. The percentage of respondents who say yes has never reached 40. And when respondents are asked about a hypothetical congressional candidate who supports impeachment, more say they’d vote against than for such a candidate. Something about the word impeachment—maybe the impression that it reflects an agenda rather than an open-minded assessment of facts—turns people off.
3. Continue the investigation. Some polls offer three options: End the investigation, continue it, or begin impeachment. Only 1 in 6 people chooses impeachment, but 2 in 6 choose the middle option: Keep investigating. Together, the pro-impeachment and pro-investigation factions form a roughly 50 percent plurality for hearings that could lead to impeachment. They agree, depending on the question, that Congress should “continue the investigation into potential wrongdoing,” “hold hearings to further investigate” what Mueller found, or “continue investigating to see if there is enough evidence to hold impeachment hearings in the future.”
4. Summon Mueller. This is a no-brainer. By a ratio of more than 2 to 1, Americans think the special counsel should testify before Congress. Among Democrats and independents, the margins are overwhelming. Even Republicans, who stand behind Trump on other questions, are split on this one.
5. Focus on obstruction, not collusion. Several polls have asked whether Trump “conspired with Russia,” “worked with Russia to influence” the 2016 election, or “attempted to coordinate with Russia in order to benefit his presidential campaign.” In not one of these surveys has a plurality said yes. But pluralities do think Trump “committed obstruction of justice,” “attempted to obstruct the investigation,” “tried to impede or obstruct” it, “attempted to derail or obstruct” it, and “tried to interfere with the Russia investigation in a way that amounts to obstruction of justice.” By margins of 10 to 20 percentage points, they agree that Congress should “hold hearings” to “investigate whether Donald Trump committed obstruction of justice.”
6. Broaden the scrutiny. Most Americans view Trump as corrupt. A 2-to-1 majority thinks he committed crimes before he was president. Half think he has committed crimes as president, and a narrow majority thinks it’s very or somewhat likely that “Russia has compromising information” on him. A Politico/Morning Consult poll asked voters a series of questions as to whether Congress should investigate various topics: Trump’s tax returns, his “business interests and arrangements,” “the process for how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump obtained security clearances,” and “Cabinet secretary spending, including on travel and office furnishings.” On every question, the percentage of respondents who said investigation of such matters should be a top or important priority significantly exceeded the percentage who said investigation was unimportant or should not be pursued.
7. Highlight Trump’s defiance. Democrats will face headwinds as they push forward. Most voters think investigations of Trump are “distracting Congress from other national issues,” and in a CNN survey, 44 percent of Americans said Democrats were “doing too much … to investigate Donald Trump.” But on a different question in the same CNN poll, 54 percent said Trump was doing “too little … to cooperate with congressional Democrats investigating him.” The key is to focus attention on Trump’s behavior toward Congress, rather than on Congress’ behavior toward Trump. Two-thirds of Americans agree, for example, that the president should “release his tax returns for public review.” Democrats should constantly ask why he doesn’t.
8. The election is the impeachment. A formal impeachment would take months. Republicans would acquit Trump in the Senate, and he would use the fight to rally his base, accusing liberals in Congress of trying to overturn the election. Why play into his hands, when instead you could investigate him through the normal oversight process, present your hearings and findings to voters, and invite them to pass judgment on him a year from now?
Mueller’s inquiry has already hurt Trump. In a Politico/Morning Consult survey, 30 percent of voters said the investigation made them view the president more favorably, but 47 percent said the opposite. Fifteen percent said they were more likely to vote for Trump as a result of the inquiry, but 23 percent said they were less likely. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 14 percent said Mueller’s findings made them more likely to support Trump for re-election, but 36 percent said the findings made them more likely to oppose him. In both surveys, Democrats stood firm against the president, while 10 percent of Republicans signaled some disenchantment with him.
To remove Trump through impeachment, Democrats would have to win 67 percent of the vote in a Senate that’s 53 percent Republican. To remove him the normal way, they’d only have to win a majority of electoral votes in a country that’s 25 percent to 30 percent Republican. Through their control of the House, Democrats have the power to investigate Trump and present their findings to the ultimate jury: the people of the United States. That’s a better court to fight in, and an easier case to win.