The Win-Win Impeachment: How Everyone Got What They Wanted . . . Except The Public

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on how the impeachment trial played out perfectly for everyone with the exception of voters.

Here is the column:

After the impeachment acquittal of President Donald Trump, every network and newspaper rushed forth with “winners and losers” stories. Some said Trump was the ultimate winner while others said he won nothing in a trial that was fixed. Some said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) triumphed while others declared her utterly undone by a sham House investigation.  

It is all part of the same zero-sum construct: For one to win, the other must lose to the same degree. 

Politics, however, is not a zero-sum game. Not only did all political sides win, they seemingly all worked for the same result — an acquittal. 

Speaker Pelosi and The Science of Failure:

For years, Speaker Pelosi openly opposed President Trump’s impeachment. As I wrote previously, the last thing she wanted was to remove Trump and bring about a Pence administration. She wanted Trump wounded but alive in 2020.  

Pelosi had two additional goals. First, Democratic voters grew increasingly impatient with congressional Democrats professing a desire to impeach without actually doing so. This included an impeachment-heavy pitch in the 2018 midterm elections that delivered the House to Democrats. The voters were beginning to see that they were being played, so a failed attempt was the best alternative: Bring an impeachment that was guaranteed to lose with the shortest investigation, thinnest record and narrowest grounds.

Second, it was important to convince voters that the failure was due entirely to Republicans. By rushing the vote before Christmas, Pelosi relied on Senate Republicans to block witnesses so that the House could blame them. (History was on her side, since Democrats voted as a bloc to both block witnesses and a full trial in the Clinton impeachment.) 

It did not matter that a rushed impeachment made no strategic sense. In my House testimony, I repeatedly asked why Democrats would rush forward with an incomplete record when just a couple months would dramatically strengthen their case with witnesses and court orders. Democrats simply declared there was no time to waste in voting for impeachment. They then did nothing for a month after their vote, as Pelosi engaged in the ridiculous pretense of holding the articles of impeachment to coerce the Senate into calling witnesses and holding a fair trial. It was transparently contrived, since Pelosi was destroying the rationale for a rushed House vote. Yet, Democratic voters bought it and blamed Senate Republicans.  

Thus, Pelosi won. She kept Trump in office while enraging the Democrats’ base for the 2020 election. And impeachment leaders like Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) hit record levels of contributions for fighting a fight he was meant to lose.

President Trump and The Art of Outrage:

A failed impeachment proved even more beneficial to President Trump. As shown when he triumphantly held up newspapers with the headline “Acquitted,” impeachment enabled him to claim victory over a “deep state” and Democratic conspiracy. 

He also was able to again highlight the dubious business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. While Democratic senators opposed trial testimony by Hunter Biden, Trump told voters they should get the whole story. A Hill-HarrisX poll found 54 percent of independents and 40 percent of Democrats agreeing that “Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine are an important campaign issue that should be discussed.” 

Thus, Trump won, too. According to Gallup, Trump’s popularity reached his highest point, 49 percent – better than President Barack Obama’s polling at this stage in his first term, even without an impeachment. The trial turbocharged Trump’s support, with a breathtaking 94 percent popularity among Republicans. It also proved a windfall for GOP fundraising; the Republican National Committee raked in $117 million online from late September through this week and picked up 1 million new donors. Trump’s campaign coffers swelled to $103 million — compared to less than $85 million combined for the Democratic presidential contenders. Trump’s haul grew almost 25 percent during the House impeachment investigation, from October to December. 

The Media and Managed Mania:

The greatest winner, of course, was the media. Despite the steady drumbeat of media criticism, Trump has single-handedly saved the industry from an economic free-fall. Cable networks like CNN and MSNBC have profited handsomely by offering unrelenting attacks on him; he is the greatest boon for the media business since the invention of the printing press. 

In a rare moment of honesty from a television executive, CNN’s Jeff Zucker told an industry group two years ago: “We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.” The notion of replacing the scurrilous Trump with the staid Pence is enough to put Zucker into a tight fetal position.

The same goes for Fox News. While long the dominant cable network, Fox posted unrivaled ratings during the Senate trial, beating not just its cable competitors but the networks.  

What the media needed was a heated but failed trial that kept Trump in office, still fueling headlines. Echo-journalism requires angry readers and viewers who find solace in hearing one side of the Trump saga. For the media, replacing Trump with Pence would be like going from a Mardi Gras romp to a Gregorian chant.

Bolton and The Selling Books Through Silence:

There were individual beneficiaries, too, but none come close to the likely windfall of former national security adviser John Bolton. He used impeachment to shamelessly plug his forthcoming book with tweets like, “For the backstory, stay tuned ……. .” 

Whereas his former aides came forward at personal risk to defy the administration — including some now fired from the White House — Bolton insisted on receiving a subpoena while careening between threatening litigation on one hand and inviting compelled testimony on the other. Rather than disclosing information he had to share, the Senate was hit by lethally timed leaks from his book draft. When the House asked him to submit an affidavit before the trial ended, Bolton reportedly refused. It left many suspicious about Bolton’s motivations. After all, you can’t sell an affidavit on Amazon. 

It did not seem to matter that the republic was in crisis. The only thing that would have been catastrophic for Bolton would have been a court compelling him to testify for free, or Trump actually being removed. Instead, we’ve all been forced to “stay tuned.” And, like fired FBI director James Comey and his own tell-all book, Bolton almost certainly will become rich.

Of course, there is one set of losers in all of this: the public.

American voters remain the greatest chumps the world has known. Both parties continue to play them in scam after scam, filling the public’s dresser drawers with the political equivalent of $5 “solid-gold watches.” Yet, the public continues coming back for more, trained to rage with the same Pavlovian bell used every election.  

The simple fact is this: While the two parties, the media and Bolton got what they wanted, the public may have gotten what it deserves.

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