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The Politics of Impeachment Have Reached the Point of No Return

We're about to find out if the American public can process the complications of the ever-widening Ukraine scandal.

Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The House vote to approve rules for the impeachment inquiry has not only taken us into a new stage of the House’s formal proceedings, but into a new realm of impeachment politics as well. Having gathered testimony and evidence from over a dozen witnesses, Democrats are now preparing to build the case for impeachment with public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, including new hearings with some of those witnesses who have already testified in closed sessions. Meanwhile, Republicans are reportedly preparing to move on from the endless process-based complaints about the closed-door hearings Democrats have held so far, a strategy shift that President Donald Trump himself has recommended.

The argument to which Republicans will likely shift is bound to resemble other now pro forma defenses of the president’s behavior. Whatever one thinks about the propriety of Trump’s quid pro quo, they will say, his actions were neither criminal nor impeachable and should be subject to the appraisal of voters in next year’s election. For many weeks, conservative media has been laying the groundwork for this next stage. “The White House should stop saying there was no quid pro quo,” the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro recently said. “The question is whether it was a corrupt quid pro quo. As I’ve been saying for weeks, quid pro quos in foreign policy happen all the time.”

Meanwhile, impeachment-skeptical centrists like The New York Times columnist David Brooks, continue to insist, against a preponderance of evidence in survey data, that Democrats have strayed into politically dangerous territory. “Democrats have not won over the most important votersmoderates in swing states,” he wrote Friday. “A New York Times/Siena College survey of voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin found that just 43 percent want to impeach and remove Trump from office, while 53 percent do not. Pushing impeachment makes Democrats vulnerable in precisely the states they cannot afford to lose in 2020.”

But Brooks fails to mention another figure from the very same pollthat swing state voters support the impeachment inquiry itself by a five point margin. Given the likelihood of Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, those voters are going to get both the process they want from Democrats, as well as the outcome they prefer: an impeachment process that doesn’t end in Trump’s removal. This, moreover, is assuming that the numbers don’t move more solidly against Trump as the process continues.

It’s hard to say whether and to what extent they might, although we know that the emergence of the Ukraine scandal did put a dent in Trump’s approval rating, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich wrote last week. By contrast, there has been no evidence of the impeachment backlash against Democratseither for persecuting Trump or for diverting their attention from “kitchen table issues”that many long predicted.

Momentum in support of impeachment has nevertheless stalled: FiveThirtyEight’s impeachment tracker shows that the numbers in favor of the process have held mostly steady over the past month. Most of this can likely be attributed to partisanshipwhatever the ceiling is for Republican support, it’s likely a low one, and over 80 percent of Democrats are already on board with the inquiry. It also seems relevant that most of the action in the inquiry since Democratic leaders backed it has taken place behind closed doors, with information trickling out to the press rather than being drummed out dramatically in public hearings.

That material has corroborated the initial Democratic characterizations of the Zelenskiy call, but it has also introduced new characters and facts into the narrative. The initial case for basing impeachment on Ukraine was that Trump’s wrongdoing in this matter, clear and self-evident in the call’s transcript, would be easy for the public to graspa scandal without the multiple threads and and various secondary figures involved in the Mueller investigation. This argument seems dubious now, as the investigation has produced more material for the public to keep in mind and for Republicans to nitpick and mischaracterize. Last Thursday, for instance, White House National Security Adviser Tim Morrison confirmed that he had heard about Trump tethering military aid to the possibility of investigating a firm linked to Hunter Biden. On Friday, however, Trump joined Rep. Mark Meadows in suggesting by tweet that Morrison’s testimony exonerated him, because Morrison also said that he hadn’t thought anything illegal had been discussed with Zelenskiy.

Impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. An official needn’t commit a crime for the House to conclude an abuse of power or unbecoming conduct has occurred. But by pursuing a meticulously legalistic process and a lengthy investigation, Democrats have, as was the case with the Mueller investigation, implicitly set a high bar for what they hope the impeachment process might uncover. Pelosi and others said correctly at the outset that the Zelenskiy call and the attempts to cover it up reported in the press were evidence enough to take action. They pursued more anyway, and the search is producing diminishing returns. “A lot of the damning evidence already came out,” Rep. Ted Lieu told Politico this week. “And a lot of these witnesses are corroborating essentially the same narrative, which hasn’t changed.”

Luckily, the new phase of the inquiry offers Democrats not only an opportunity to emphasize to the public what they’ve found, but to expand the scope of wrongdoing they plan to include in their articles. There’s surely more dynamite to be uncovered in Trump’s offering of official pardons to grease the wheels for his wall, or the official use of his hotels as an unconstitutional self-enrichment scheme. These are all matters that, politics aside, Democrats have a political and moral obligation to look into anyway. It will be a scandal all its own if they don’t.