President Trump has threatened to take legal action if Democrats try to impeach him, musing that he’ll “sue.” He has peppered confidants and advisers with questions about how an impeachment inquiry might unfold. And he has coined his own cheeky term — “the I-word” — to refer to the legal and political morass that threatens to overshadow his presidency as he heads into his 2020 reelection campaign.
As Democrats struggle with how to handle calls from their liberal flank to impeach the president, Trump himself is eager to avoid any such proceedings — while also fixated on his belief that Democrats can’t impeach him because he has done nothing wrong, according to interviews with 15 White House aides, outside advisers, Republican lawmakers and friends, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid conversations.
The president is intrigued by the notion of impeachment but wary of its practical dangers, one outside adviser said. Trump remembers how Republican impeachment proceedings in the late 1990s against President Bill Clinton seemed to boost Clinton’s approval ratings, and Trump is at his best when battling a perceived foe, several advisers added.
Yet he also views impeachment in deeply personal terms. He is less concerned about the potential historical stain on his legacy — Clinton and Andrew Johnson are the only presidents to have been impeached — and more about what he sees as yet another Democratic attack on the legitimacy of his presidency, according an outside adviser and a White House aide.
The focus on impeachment comes as Democrats on Tuesday escalated their fight with Trump over congressional oversight, voting to go to court in an attempt to force Attorney General William P. Barr and former White House counsel Donald McGahn to comply with subpoenas. Both are being sought for testimony related to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, which many Democrats believe provides a road map for how to proceed in impeaching Trump for as many as 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice.
Those close to Trump are offering him advice on impeachment that one outside adviser close to the president described as “truly binary.”
On one side are those loyalists, mainly outside the White House, who are telling the president that impeachment could be a political blessing for him and his party — that one road to reelection runs through impeachment.
On the other is a larger continent warning that impeachment, even under the rosiest scenarios, is a grueling gauntlet that will leave him politically bruised with an asterisk forever marring his presidency.
ManyTrump allies also agree that while impeachment might ultimately prove beneficial for Trump — allowing him to cast Democrats as overzealous sore losers — the actual process of impeachment would plunge both the nation and the White House into chaos. There is no broad strategy within the White House to encourage Democrats to pursue articles of impeachment against him, two senior administration officials said.
“Even though it would be politically advantageous to the president and likely guarantee his reelection, it’s terrible for the country and I’d be saying the same thing even if the shoe was on the other foot and Republicans were talking about impeaching a Democratic president,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The topic is so sensitive that Trump often refers to impeachment as “the I-word,” though one senior White House official said he is being playful. Aides have heard him use the phrase privately in meetings, and he has also used it publicly.
Last month, Trump scrapped a planned infrastructure meeting with Democrats at the last minute after learning that House Democrats had met the night before to discuss impeachment — calling an impromptu news conference in the Rose Garden to blast them for entertaining “the big ‘I’ word,” as he put it.
“All of a sudden, I hear last night, they’re going to have a meeting, right before this meeting, to talk about the ‘I’ word,” Trump said. “The ‘I’ word. Can you imagine?”
Just over a week later, speaking to reporters on the White House South Lawn, Trump was similarly outraged by the mere mention of the impeachment. “To me, it’s a dirty word — the word ‘impeach,’” he said. “It’s a dirty, filthy, disgusting word.”
Trump has also griped privately that if the Democrats tried to impeach him, he would simply sue — a sentiment he has also occasionally expressed publicly.
In a duo of tweets in April, Trump wrote, “I DID NOTHING WRONG,” and warned: “If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
And in late May, asked by a reporter if he thought the Democrats were going to move forward with impeachment, Trump also invoked the legal system. “I don’t see how they can,” the president said. “Because they’re possibly allowed, although I can’t imagine the courts allowing it.”
Trump’s assertions that he would sue to prevent impeachment have prompted some criticism in the legal community, with Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard who has called for Trump’s impeachment, describing the idea as “idiocy” in a tweet. “Not even a SCOTUS filled with Trump appointees would get in the way of the House or Senate,” Tribe wrote.
But Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus professor at Harvard Law School and frequent Trump ally, argues that the Supreme Court could intervene to avoid a constitutional crisis if it believed Congress had acted unconstitutionally in impeaching the president.
Impeachment starts in the House, which can impeach a president with a simple majority vote. The president can only be removed from office, however, if the Senate then votes by a two-thirds majority to convict.
Dershowitz said in an interview that the status quo — Democrats pushing an impeachment message without actually moving ahead with proceedings — could be the optimal outcome for the president.
“The best-case scenario for the president both politically and legally is the Democrats to continue impeachment talk, for 60 or 70 Democratic congressman to demand impeachment, and for in the end there to be no impeachment by the House,” Dershowitz said. “In that way, he gets the political benefit without the stigma. It’s a win-win.”
Some who argue the benefits of impeachment still oppose it overall. Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, for instance, has expressed his belief to the president that Democrats would be viewed as leftist extremists if they proceed down that path and be punished by voters, a senior White House official said.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has publicly said that impeachment talk has not hurt the president’s polling numbers, an assessment that he has also conveyed to Trump in private briefings, one person familiar with their conversations said.
“The more they beat that drum for impeachment, the more this emboldens our campaign,” Parscale told CBS in a recent interview.
According to recent polling, over half of Americans do not support impeaching the president, and those sentiments are more pronounced among the Republicans and independents Trump will have to hold onto to win reelection. A recent CNN poll found that overall, 54 percent opposed impeachment, including 59 percent of independents and 93 percent of Republicans.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and a Trump ally, said “any impeachment effort would probably cause a tremendous backlash among undecided voters.”
“Impeachment, I think, is widely viewed as being harmful to our democratic process — that’s on Capitol Hill and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Meadows said. “It’s widely shared that impeachment, regardless of an acquittal, is not something that would be good for America.”
Nonetheless, questions of impeachment — both existential and shouted — continue to dog the president. On Monday, while greeting the champions of the Indianapolis 500 at the White House, Trump was asked again about whether an impeachment inquiry might actually help his reelection prospects.
Trump acknowledged the theory (“I hear that too”) before promptly dismissing the premise of the question (“You can’t impeach somebody when there has never been anything done wrong”).
Then, referring to former president Richard M. Nixon, who resigned rather than face likely impeachment, Trump struck a defiant note.
“He left. I don’t leave,” Trump said. “There’s a big difference. I don’t leave.”