On Tuesday, the White House sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi declaring that it would not cooperate with any document requests or interviews associated with the House impeachment inquiry. In particular, the letter insisted that the inquiry is currently illegitimate because the House of Representatives has not voted to initiate an impeachment investigation. Keith Whittington has ably dismissed this claim on Lawfare, so I will focus on a different question: why does the White House want a House vote on the impeachment inquiry? My claim is that President Trump may want a vote to show that (most of) the House Republicans still support him, suggesting that any Senate trial will end in a partisan stalemate.
The Politics of Impeachment: Which Party is More Vulnerable?
A lot of recent media coverage of the House impeachment process has portrayed impeachment as a political risk for Democrats generally, and especially freshman representatives in Trump-leaning districts. Th House majority, however, was elected on a mandate of checking Trump, who remains near 40% approval. If there are House Democrats who cannot explain to their constituents why they would like to investigate whether Trump is bullying foreign leaders into helping him in the 2020 election, they are just not very good at politics.
The real question is how Senate Republicans will respond to impeachment, both collectively (in the conduct of a Senate trial) and in their individual votes. House Republicans can be the canary in this political coalmine. If they start to break with President Trump, the odds of Trump surviving a trial in the Senate decline quickly.
There is good reason for House Republicans to question their allegiance to Trump if a reasonable exit ramp exists. They list a net 41 seats in 2018 and continue to seem weak in suburban areas. Seventeen Republicans have already announced that they are retiring or running for another office. For some this is an escape from real electoral jeopardy. For others retirement means getting off the hamster wheel of fundraising and pretending not to know about the President’s latest Tweet, only to remain in the powerless House minority.
And, simply put, the mounting charges against the President--and his refusal to cooperate with Congressional inquiries--give Republicans an opportunity to distance themselves from Trump. At first, individual Republicans could shift to supporting the Congressional position on the investigation, such as calling for the White House to comply with document requests and provide witnesses. Eventually, there may be public defections on substance,with a bloc of House Republicans supporting impeachment en masse.
An Impeachment Vote as a Binding Mechanism--and a "Rat" Trap
If the House held a roll call vote today to authorize an impeachment inquiry, most House Republicans would probably still back the President. For them, it is the safe position when it is unclear how this contest will play out and with primary elections ahead. It would take coordinated risk-taking to defect, and the House GOP is not there yet.
But many individual Republicans would probably prefer not to vote. The longer they wait without taking a public position, the more they learn about the case against the POTUS. And if the evidence mounts, and ratings drop, and the 2020 election continue to look bleak, the odds of a coordinated break continue. This is not outlandish—we have actually seen Republicans break with the President several times on Russian sanctions, his Charlottesville comments, and funding for "the wall."
This is why the Trump White House and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy want a vote ASAP. Sure, the lack of a floor vote to grant formal House approval for the impeachment inquiry is a handy process-based talking point when the facts look bad, but a quick vote would also have two immense benefits.
First, if the GOP can keep the vote mostly party-line, it fosters the impression that Republican ranks will hold, so impeachment will be fought along party lines (like Clinton 1998-99), and that we already know how a Senate trial will end. An initial vote against the inquiry does not prevent House Republicans from later claiming they were SHOCKED by the revelations against Trump and supporting impeachment, but once House Republicans have publicly committed against the inquiry, the bar for defection on articles of impeachment probably goes up.
Second, if there are any Republican votes supporting the impeachment inquiry, it gives President Trump and his political team a chance to bully the deserters so everyone knows the punishment for defection. Since his inauguration in 2017, Donald Trump has focused his criticism on legislators who dared defy him: Mark Sanford, Jeff Flake, and especially John McCain. If Trump is able to destroy a few House Republicans who vote for an impeachment inquiry, that may scare the remaining members into obedience.
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