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Two hundred thirty-one years ago, Alexander Hamilton nailed the essence of presidential impeachment.
“In many cases, it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will inlist [sic] all their animosities, partialities, influence and interest on one side, or on the other,” he wrote in The Federalist No. 65.
What Hamilton couldn’t have predicted: the unabashed cash grab that the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump has become. It’s one made possible by a confluence of technology, shifting norms and extreme partisanship — and flatly unthinkable even a political generation ago.
But it’s plenty real now. Impeachment-related flashpoints appear to have bolstered several key politicians’ bottom lines, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of new presidential campaign contribution data for individual donors making big-dollar contributions of more than $200, through Sept. 30.
Take Trump himself. His campaign received less than $57,000 in direct big-dollar contributions from individuals on Monday, Sept. 23 — the day 60 new House Democrats announced their support of an impeachment inquiry as details of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emerged.
But on Sept. 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally endorsed an impeachment inquiry. Trump’s campaign immediately rushed to capitalize.
“The Democrats know they have no chance of winning in 2020, so now they are crying, ‘Impeachment!’” Trump’s campaign wrote in an email urging supporters to send money and join its “Official Impeachment Defense Task Force.” It followed up later that day with an email solicitation titled “Impeachment?”
Money began pouring in: more than $355,000 worth of big-dollar donations from individuals on Sept. 24, $335,000 on Sept. 25 and more than $405,000 — the top single-day total of the year — on Sept. 26. (Data on small-dollar contributions won’t be fully available until early 2020.)
The Trump Make America Great Again Committee — a joint fundraising venture composed of Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee — likewise raked in atypically high contributions during the week of Sept. 23.
Democrats scored, too.
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, for example, had her strongest big-dollar fundraising week of the year the week of Sept. 23. Warren more often than not raises less than $100,000 each day in big-dollar contributions. That week, her slowest day saw her raise about $163,000.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign raised more than $300,000 in big-dollar contributions on Sept. 23 and Sept. 25. To that point, the Biden campaign hadn’t cracked the $300,000 mark once during September.
Democratic presidential candidates in aggregate also experienced a significant increase in big-dollar donations from Sept. 23 onward. Combined, they raised more than $1 million in such contributions each day for the rest of the month. At no other point this year have they together raised $1 million in big-dollar contributions from individual donors for more than four consecutive days.
Trump and the Democratic presidential candidates are joined by a legion of congressional candidates and party committees who have similarly sought to make money off the specter of impeachment, peppering prospective donors with endless asks for money.
Some of the most breathless appeals come from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for which Pelosi frequently fundraises.
“House Democrats just called for a deliberate and thorough impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump,” the DCCC wrote Sept. 26. “This is the most historic week we’ve EVER seen in recent memory. That’s why it’s critical we hit our HUGE fundraising goal — $150,000 before midnight tomorrow — to protect our Majority and defeat Trump’s agenda.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cut a Facebook video with the tagline: “DONATE AND HELP MITCH STOP IMPEACHMENT.”
And on Tuesday, in a fundraising email with a subject line “Impeach,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich writes of Trump being a “victim of FALSE and FRAUDULENT charges” then asks for money. Contributions benefit Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the House minority whip.
Gingrich spearheaded the House’s 1998 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, who the U.S. Senate ultimately acquitted.
Leading Republicans and Democrats active in politics during Clinton’s impeachment expressed degrees of amazement at how money is often the message as the House mulls whether to impeach Trump.
“I would not have felt comfortable doing that — fundraising on impeachment,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who served as the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman from 1999 to 2000 and voted to impeach Clinton. “Impeachment — it’s very sobering. It’s not a pleasant task.”
Jim Manley, who served as press secretary to then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., went further.
“You didn’t even contemplate it. It would have been absolutely unthinkable in 1998,” he said of fundraising off impeachment. “What’s happening now cheapens the discourse during one of the most significant actions the Congress can take.”
Standards aside, partisans of the 1990s also didn’t have the requisite tools to financially exploit Clinton’s impeachment.
Broadband internet? A luxury. E-commerce? In its infancy. Online political contributions? Not yet really a thing. Some candidates didn’t even have websites.
“All the vehicles for instant, direct access to voters — they didn’t exist,” said Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law and author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.”
Consider that online organizing and fundraising innovator MoveOn.org had just formed in the midst of Clinton’s impeachment, first launching a petition drive to “censure President Clinton and move on to pressing issues facing the nation.”
Its federal political action committee raised just $12,000 during 1998. During 1999, it raised $542,311 — exponentially more, but still a pittance by contemporary standards, when top-tier super PACs and politically active nonprofit groups routinely raise millions of dollars in a month.
Another four years would elapse before Democrat Howard Dean became the nation’s first online fundraising sensation among presidential candidates.
Will impeachment-related fundraising of today lose its novelty?
Not likely, at least soon.
During Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, for example, the campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris texted supporters to say that “Donald Trump is lawless” and “he must be impeached.” Click on a provided link, input your email address and ZIP code and you’re sent to a page on Harris’ website.
“Will you make a contribution to show Kamala you’re in her corner during tonight’s debate?” it reads.
Carrie Levine contributed to this report.
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