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 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 to 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 contingent warning that impeachment, even under the rosiest scenarios, would be a grueling gantlet that would leave him politically bruised, with an asterisk forever marring his presidency.
Many Trump allies also agree that while impeachment might ultimately prove beneficial for the president — allowing him to cast Democrats as overzealous sore losers — the actual process would plunge the White House and the nation into chaos. There is no broad strategy within the White House to encourage Democrats to pursue articles of impeachment against Trump, 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 recently met 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 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 Democrats tried to impeach him, he would simply sue — a sentiment he has also occasionally expressed publicly.
In April, Trump wrote on Twitter, “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 whether 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 a frequent Trump ally, says the Supreme Court could intervene to avoid a constitutional crisis if it thought Congress had acted unconstitutionally in impeaching the president.
The process starts in the House, which can impeach a president with a simple majority vote. The president can be removed from office, however, only 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 optimal for the president.
“The best-case scenario for the president both politically and legally is for the Democrats to continue impeachment talk, for 60 or 70 Democratic congressmen 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 ultimately oppose it. Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, for instance, has expressed his belief to the president that Democrats would be viewed as leftist extremists if they proceeded down that path and would 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, more than 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 on to to win reelection. A recent CNN poll found that, overall, 54 percent of Americans 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 that “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 whether an impeachment inquiry might help his reelection prospects.
He 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 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.”