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5 Ways Impeachment Could Play Out

Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

If you’re looking at history to provide a guide to the impending impeachment saga … don’t. With only three past examples, involving three very different controversies, there’s thin gruel that will provide little nourishment. So let’s turn to a different tool: the concept of an infinite number of universes, where events play out in different ways, depending on everything from consequential decisions to random chance. Modesty forbids asserting that any of the outcomes listed below will happen; only that they might.

Some of these universes may seem improbable or even fanciful, I know. But before you dismiss them all, ask yourself this question: Would the universe we are living in now have seemed any less fanciful three years ago?

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IN UNIVERSE ONE

The House provides a forum for a deliberate look at a narrow set of facts. The template is the Senate Watergate Committee, which began poking into Watergate and other “presidential campaign activities” in the spring of 1973. It was a select committee of seven members, with nary an ideologue in sight. (Chairman Sam Ervin was a conservative Democrat; ranking member Howard Baker was a moderate Republican.) Over 319 hours, the nation learned of John Dean’s “cancer on the presidency” and the revelation that there was a taping system inside the White House. Notably, much of the questioning was done by staff counsel, which made for less political bloviation and more targeted inquiry.

So in this scenario, instead of having six committees channel their findings to the Judiciary Committee, Speaker Nancy Pelosi changes her mind, and creates a similar select committee, where staff lawyers do the lion’s share of the questioning, focused on the issue raised by the whistleblower: Did the president withhold desperately needed military aid to pressure Ukraine into damaging a potential political opponent.

In this universe, there is at least a chance of laying out the facts in a clear frame, enabling the public to grasp the essence of the case for impeachment. That in turn moves public opinion to the point where some Congressional Republicans begin to recalculate the benefits and cost of a pro-impeachment vote.

IN UNIVERSE TWO

Pelosi sticks to her original plan to have six (count ‘em six) committees feed their conclusions to the House Judiciary Committee. These committees are already investigating everything from Trump’s taxes to payoffs to mistresses to the origins of Trump’s wealth.

Judiciary itself is among the most polarized of Congressional bodies. Several Democrats have been pushing for impeachment, while Republicans on the panel include Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz and Louis Gohmert, who devote much of their time to revisiting the “deep state” theory of an anti-Trump coup, as well as raising questions about the financial and personal travails of Hunter Biden. (Just Friday, Senator Tom Cotton and conservative columnist and talk show host Hugh Hewitt tweeted about a paternity suit involving Hunter Biden.)

In this format, barely controlled chaos is the order of the day. Witnesses either refuse to testify, or confront the Democrats with furious denunciations. (See the exchange between former ICE Director Thomas Hohman and Rep. Pramila Jayapal for a preview of what is to come.) The hearings feature each of the 40 members engaging in five minute soliloquies, ending in a party-line vote on impeachment.

As the committee descends into bitter partisan warfare, Trump’s media firewall goes to Defcon 1, with nightly, even hourly assaults on the Democrats’ attempted coup. And public opinion—which had been moving toward impeachment in the wake of the whistleblower’s complaint—now begins to swing toward “it’s the same old political noise” view. Trump’s job approval ratings stabilize, and when impeachment reaches the Senate, Majority Leader McConnell moves to dismiss the counts so that “we can get back to doing the people’s business”—meaning that there won’t even be a vote. (I know McConnell has said there has to be a trial, but he has never in the past been bound by consistency.)

IN UNIVERSE THREE

As the Judiciary Committee’s hearings provide a steady dose of ever-more damaging evidence—aided by an intelligence community and ex-White House aides turned whistleblowers, cracks begin to widen in the Republican-conservative firewall that has been protecting Trump from the 2016 campaign on. Mitt Romney’s “deeply troubling” view of Trump’s behavior, and similar comments by Senators Ben Sasse and Pat Toomey, persuade a handful of House Republicans—many of whom like Texas Will Hurd have already announced their retirements—to vote for impeachment.

Similar cracks widen in the media; the Drudge Report continues to feature damaging stories about Trump on its front page. At FOX News, the war between the journalists and the advocates intensifies; an attempted “debate” between Andrew Napolitano and Joseph diGenova turns into chaos, as the principals almost come to blows.

When impeachment comes to the Senate, after a contentious House process where there are divides among the Republicans, half a dozen GOP senators vote to convict, leaving Trump in office, but seriously damaged. In February, 2020, Trump barely wins a majority of votes in the New Hampshire primary, with New Hampshire native Bill Weld coming in second.

IN UNIVERSE FOUR

As the Judiciary Committee meets, the fortunes of Joe Biden begin to worsen as committee Republicans and the media—both right wing and mainstream—put the former veep into the spotlight. The lengthy, deeply reported New Yorker story from July about Hunter Biden’s troubled life gains new visibility, as do accounts of Joe Biden’s six-figure speaking fees and post-vice-presidential wealth.

By Thanksgiving Day, Biden withdraws from the race, and a muddled Democratic primary field heads toward a lengthy, divisive primary, with faint signs that Sherrod Brown, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Bloomberg are “reassessing” their prospects.

Meanwhile, Trump’s approval ratings—as they have after every past controversy—stabilize in the low 40s, and the prediction markets peg his re-election chances at 50 percent.

IN UNIVERSE FIVE

As the evidence mounts against Trump, and the Judiciary Committee becomes the setting for a steady drip of damaging evidence against the president, he becomes more and more unmoored, launching into lengthy monologues about the spies and traitors inside his own administration. In response, onetime members of Trump’s administration—Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster—begin to express their concern about the president’s stability. As the president’s mental health becomes increasingly worrisome, a delegation including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs and Rudy Giluiani go to the White House and urge that Trump resign. Trump orders them thrown out of the White House and Tweets a stream of accusations about backstabbers; he also urges all FOX viewers to boycott the network, and speculates that Rupert Murdoch may never have actually become a U.S citizen.

Those with long memories note that, during the last days of Nixon’s presidency, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger told the Joint Chiefs of Staff not to execute any presidential order involving military force without first checking with him. Unfortunately, with no one in any semblance of authority at the White House or anywhere in the administration, there is no one to check Trump. The president’s effort to divert attention from his troubles results in armed military conflict in Iran, North Korea, the South China Sea and Venezuela. The year ends with the very real prospect of one or more of these conflicts “going nuclear.”

CORRECTION: Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s name was wrong in an earlier version of this article.

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