Last week, House Republicans huddled in a Capitol conference room to figure out what kind of emergency immigration bill they might be able to pass. In his telling, Florida Rep. Ted Yoho wanted the party to jam the White House, to pack the bill with new border security measures and threaten to impeach Obama if he ignored them.
“He either enforces the laws on the books—as he was hired and elected to do—or he leaves Congress no option,” crowed Yoho to Breitbart.com. “This is not our choice, this is the president’s choice and I would advise him to uphold the law on the books.”
That wasn’t out of character for Yoho; for most of the past 12 months, he’d been calling on his party to impeach Attorney General Eric Holder. In 2011, before he was even elected to Congress, he delineated six reasons to impeach the president, from “the unconstitutional Nationalization of GM and Chrysler” to taking “commands from the U.N. or NATO.”
Yet on Tuesday, just a few days after the Breitbart story, Yoho was leaving another House Republican confab, carrying a cup of coffee, and being pelted with questions. Most of the questions came from the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, who asked what Yoho thought of the Democrats now raising funds on the specter of impeachment. Costa then found himself drawn into an accidental Socratic dialogue.
“Why would you impeach a president?” Yoho asked the reporter. “What are the reasons?”
“You tell me,” said Costa.
“I’m asking you,” said Yoho.
“I’m trying to get a sense of what people think is an impeachable offense—perhaps his move on immigration,” said Costa.
“I think that’s one of many. Again, go back to why you impeach a president.”
“Can you inform me a little more?” asked Costa.
“You asked me,” said Yoho. “And I’m asking you a question.”
The congressman and the reporter went several more rounds until Costa chose not to answer the hypothetical question about why a president should be impeached.
“Then I guess I don’t know either,” said Yoho. “I mean, come on, you know—it’s high crimes and misdemeanors. Not following the Constitution. Has he violated those oaths? Has he not faithfully executed the laws of our land?”
“So he should be impeached?” asked Costa.
“I’m not saying that,” said Yoho.
Had someone gotten to Yoho? Why, yes. In the weekly meeting, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden got up to talk his colleagues out of mentioning impeachment. Walden, who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee, reported that the other party’s House campaign group had raised $2.1 million via emails warning of impending impeachment. (New York Rep. Steve Israel, who runs that group, confirmed as much.)
“He said, and the speaker reiterated, ‘We’re not going there,’ ” said Louisiana Rep. John Fleming. “ ‘We’re not interested in that, there’s no way it would be successful. Most of this discussion is coming from the White House, and there’s no reason to talk about it.’ ”
Fleming was on board with the omerta, which developed over the weekend, after White House officials started talking about impeachment with Brer Rabbit glee and new House Majority Whip Steve Scalise gave a word-salad answer to an impeachment question. On Tuesday, after the conference meeting, Speaker John Boehner told reporters that “impeachment” was “a scam started by the Democrats at the White House.”
It wasn’t. If impeachment is a scam, it was started on the right, early in the Obama presidency. Some of its early adherents believed in it; some thought they were merely responding to the passions of constituents; some, obviously, wanted to raise money. At the start of this summer, the conservative book-publishing industry churned out two new tomes about why Republicans needed to start an impeachment conversation, to stop pretending that it was crazy to accuse the president of high crimes and realize that it was consistent with the rest of the party’s arguments. Republicans mostly refused to listen.
Then, on July 8 of this year, came Sarah Palin. Her PAC (this is important—see above, re: fundraising) placed an op-ed at Breitbart.com, announcing that the time had come for the I-word. For inexplicable reasons, Palin can still shift a news cycle; in a lucky synchronicity, the Senate campaign of Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley chose July 8 to release a tape of his opponent calling for impeachment.
Nothing will stop a movement quite like the other party noticing it. “Should Obama be impeached?” had been a slam-dunk kook-spotting question for years. But House Republican leadership was ruling it out. The only people talking about impeachment, in real time, were members of the Congressional Black Caucus denouncing the threat from the House floor. Meanwhile, helpful (and anonymous) aides were reminding people that Boehner had resisted—prophetically!—when the Republican Congress of 1998 put all of its chips on impeachment and the Clinton scandals. (Boehner later overcame that resistance and voted for all four articles of impeachment.)
All of this allowed the GOP leadership to pull a rare kook-switcheroo. In mere hours, the “impeachment” drive was being covered as what Boehner said it was—a Democratic scam, or at best a scammy arms race. “[White House senior adviser] Pfeiffer has denied Obama the moral high ground on impeachment,” wrote National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who devotes most of his jottings to the question of why Obama can’t lead. “Yes, Democrats will say that Republicans started it. But why lower your party to the GOP’s level? Why lower the presidency?”
In the White House briefing room, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl went after spokesman Josh Earnest for the lucrative meta-trolling campaign.
“Did you coordinate your comments on Friday about impeachment with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?” Karl asked. “Pfeiffer says something, you say something, then they have a fundraising drive which they’re saying is one of the most successful fundraising drives of the cycle.”
The message even filtered down to WorldNetDaily, the conservative news site that sells both “Honk for Impeachment” and “Lights on for Impeachment” bumper stickers. It was running stories about Boehner’s declaration and about Rush Limbaugh seeing through the Obama grift.
“CNN and other drive-by media are going to report this—not as something Obama is trying to make happen—they’re going to report this as something the Republicans want to happen so that they get creamed by it even if they do nothing,” said Limbaugh. “Remember, there is no journalism anymore. There is only advocacy disguised as the news.”