Republicans Want to Impeach President Obama—Without Looking Crazy

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May 5 2014 7:21 PM

Will Republicans Try to Impeach President Obama?

They expect a Senate majority and the wind at their back. The trick is doing it without looking crazy.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) participates in a news conference on immigration.
Ever since the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, Republicans have compared the Obama administration’s on-the-ground failure and intra-office spin job to Watergate.

Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

On Saturday night, as Washington’s press corps was distracted by a surge of celebrity selfie opportunities, it was missing a kind of milestone. Jeanine Pirro, a former New York Republican star who tumbled out of politics and onto Fox News, was calling for the impeachment of President Obama over “a story no one wants to talk about.”*

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The story was the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Referring to that, on Fox, as “a story no one wants to talk about” sounded a bit like CNN asking where all the Flight 370 coverage had been. Not Pirro’s point—she was saying that the media failed to see where the Benghazi story was going to lead. Hint: Impeachment.

“We have impeached a president for lying about sex with an intern,” she said. “A president resigned in the face of certain impeachment for covering up a burglary. Why wouldn't we impeach this president for not protecting and defending Americans in the bloodbath known as Benghazi?” Pirro then addressed the president directly—though at this point in the evening he was giving a sardonic dinner speech—with a warning that “your dereliction of duty as commander-in-chief demands your impeachment.”

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Just one segment on a slow news night, but there was a sense of inevitability about it, of the Overton Window being shifted by hand. Ever since the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, Republicans and conservatives have compared the Obama administration’s on-the-ground failure and intra-office spin job to Watergate. Politicos compare contemporary scandals to Watergate for one of two reasons: Laziness, or to gently raise the specter of impeachment.

The only thing that tamps down impeachment talk is the fear of a backlash, of looking crazy—of looking like former Rep. Dan Burton, basically. Ever since Republicans took back the House of Representatives, Speaker of the House John Boehner has fretted that one of their investigations would veer into the same fever swamp where Burton shot at pumpkins to re-enact theories about the death of Vince Foster. Boehner, elected in 1990, remembers how Republicans bet the entire 1998 election on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and how their subsequent surprise defeat ended the speakership of Newt Gingrich.

“We’re probably one email away from Benghazi being an impeachable offense for much of our party,” fretted Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers in 2012, right after Obama’s re-election. “I think that’s nuts, but that’s where we are right now.”

That’s why Boehner’s endorsement of the select committee on Benghazi was so significant. “At one time,” former Rep. Pete Hoekstra told Newsmax, “Speaker Boehner said, if there's any indication that that this leads to the White House, you know we're going to go after this.” Boehner knew that Democrats would spend the next few months or years deriding a “witch hunt,” just as they mocked the Clinton impeachment.

And that’s also why the backup from Fox News matters, and why more conservatives will join the discussion. Next month the attorney and National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy will publish Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment. “There is a rich legal case,” writes McCarthy, “but impeachment is not about what the law allows. Impeachment is a matter of political will.”

McCarthy’s book is brief and structured around seven potential articles of impeachment, which accuse the president of everything from “usurping the constitutional authority of prerogatives of Congress” (for example, making recess appointments when Boehner refused to recess the House) to “failure to execute the immigration laws faithfully” to, inevitably, “the Benghazi fraud.”

Most of the scandals cited by McCarthy faded under the klieg lights of big media, but he puts some of the blame for that on Republicans. He cites a 2013 event with Sen. Ted Cruz in which a constituent asked why Obama couldn’t be impeached and the senator called it a “good question.” Impeachment, writes McCarthy is “not a high mountain to climb,” because Republicans will keep control of the House at least through Obama’s presidency.

The struggle is building the consensus of 1974, of making it impossible for 67 senators not to follow the House’s impeachment vote by voting to remove the president. Republicans failed to do that in 1999, after the House gave them the first trial of a president in 131 years. “The GOP had better get past its angst,” writes McCarthy. “Either that or be prepared to accept a government that is more a centralized dictatorship than a federalist republic under the rule of law.”

He’s not writing anything that key Republicans haven’t said. Last year, when the Obama administration delayed some key Affordable Care Act deadlines, some House conservatives started talking the patois of impeachment. “The President is rewriting his own law, even though the law doesn’t provide him the authority to do so,” warned Judiciary Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte after a winter 2013 hearing. “As James Madison warned centuries ago in Federalist 47, ‘the accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.’ ”

But getting from the wisdom of the founders to a full-on impeachment is tricky. Former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich discovered that after Democrats took Congress in 2007, and he introduced articles to impeach President George W. Bush largely over the conduct of the war in Iraq.

“Everything I said in those articles was absolutely correct,” Kucinich says today. “Time has borne that out. The Democratic leadership made a political decision not to proceed with the impeachment of George Bush but I think it was one of the big mistakes the Democratic Party made. It did not provide for true accountability of checks and balances.”

At the time, Republicans literally laughed off the Kucinich threat, and Democrats gave him one June 2008 hearing on the subject. Kucinich sat in the audience of the Judiciary committee as Democrats sped through a panel of anti-war witnesses and attorneys, and as Republicans asked why they were even there.

“The danger in proceeding with an impeachment without careful presentation of the facts is that you might put the country through even more turmoil,” says Kucinich.  “On the other hand, if facts are brought forward, public support would necessarily follow. But you can’t assume public support. It really requires a very, very strenuous effort, while we’re talking about an impeachment even before the facts of a hearing would be brought out. It’s very dangerous to do that—you do so and it’s not the president who gets impeached, it’s the investigation itself.”

Democrats hope as much; those of them who were around in 1998 and 2000 remember that the Clinton impeachment so damaged the Republican brand that George W. Bush had to run against his future allies in Congress. Clinton was weakened personally, and when it counted he wasn’t as powerful a surrogate for Al Gore as he could have been. The Clintons have recovered rather well since then.

“Any talk of impeachment is irresponsible and foolish,” says Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first presidential press secretary. “The committee's purpose should be to answer questions that remain unanswered. If any Republicans start talking about impeachment, they will only hurt themselves.”

Correction, May 6, 2014: This article originally misspelled Jeanine Pirro's first name. (Return)