A Split Decision From Congress Will Leave Voters With Final Say On Trump
WASHINGTON â€” When it was all over and the witnesses had testified and the speeches were done, President Donald Trump pronounced himself satisfied with the show. â€œWe had a tremendous week with the hoax,â€ he declared on Friday as he addressed a room of collegiate athletes. â€œThatâ€™s really worked out incredibly well.â€
Trump began the day with a 53-minute phone call to Fox & Friends in which he repeated a familiar list of accusations and falsehoods, which he amplified again on Saturday with a string of Twitter posts. Indeed, even after two weeks of hearings that presented compelling evidence against him, Trump was acting as if nothing had changed. In a way, it had not.
Everyone is playing their assigned role in a drama where the ending seems known in advance as the House of Representatives heads toward a likely party-line vote to impeach the president, followed by a Senate trial that will not convict him.
But if the outcome of the showdown on Capitol Hill at the moment appears foreordained, the ultimate verdict still is not. Unlike Presidents Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, Trump faces an election after his impeachment battle, meaning that the voters will serve as the court of appeals rendering their own final judgment on whether he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.
As a result, now that the House Intelligence Committee has laid out the evidence against Trump, the debate that will now play out on Capitol Hill will be aimed not at swaying lawmakers firmly embedded in their partisan corners, but at framing the issue in ways that will resonate with the public. The next few weeks could be critical in setting the parameters for a campaign that will decide if Trump is fit for office.
â€œThe impeachment jury is actually the smaller universe of voters in our country who are persuadable, swing voters who have avoided the tribalism plaguing most of our citizenry these days,â€ said former Rep. Chris Curbelo, R-Fla. â€œTheir verdict will be issued next fall.â€
While scholars and lawyers have argued the finer points of Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, the main players in the drama have been studying poll numbers and fundraising totals. Every day during the hearings, Trumpâ€™s campaign and various organs of the Republican and Democratic parties blasted out emails and videos aimed at that jury beyond the Beltway.
Members of the Intelligence Committee tweeted out their interpretations of the dayâ€™s events to their followers from the hearing room dais, even as witnesses were still testifying. Impeachment was the first question asked at Wednesday nightâ€™s Democratic presidential debate, which began barely an hour after that dayâ€™s marathon hearing wrapped up.
Both sides were fixated on the case study of Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York who vaulted to fame among conservatives and infamy among liberals for her fierce defense of Trump. After her Democratic opponent in next yearâ€™s election reported raising $1 million from Trump critics outraged by Stefanikâ€™s performance, conservatives who once were suspicious of her moderate credentials rallied to her side and she was given prized slots on Fox News.
â€œWe just raised 250k in 15 MINUTES,â€ Stefanik wrote on Twitter just hours after impeachment hearings concluded on Thursday. â€œTHANK YOU! help us get to 500k TONIGHT.â€
In five days of public hearings over two weeks, the committee heard from 12 witnesses, all of them current or former administration officials and most with years if not decades of public service under presidents of both parties. With an average of 12 million Americans watching each day, the testimony laid out in meticulous detail an effort by Trump and his lieutenants to pressure Ukraine into helping him tear down his domestic political rivals.
Lawmakers were told that Trump wanted Ukraine to announce that it would investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as well as a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukraine helping Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, the latter a figment of disinformation propagated by Russia, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. Trump clearly conditioned a coveted White House invitation for Ukraineâ€™s president on his demand for the investigations and several witnesses said it was obvious he held back $391 million in American aid as leverage as well.
Republicans poked holes in the testimony, making clear that none of the witnesses had actually heard Trump explicitly tie the security aid to the investigations, and they complained vociferously about the process, assailing it as tilted against the president. Some Republicans conceded that Trump did in fact do what he was accused of doing but maintained that it was not impeachable.
Whatever the hearings revealed about Trumpâ€™s conduct in office, they seemed to only reinforce just how polarized the country has become. No lawmakers declared that the evidence had changed their minds in either direction and judging by polls most Americans seemed to find only validation for the viewpoint they had when the hearings began.
Indeed, listening to Republicans and Democrats, or their friendlier media, would give the impression of two radically different sets of hearings, one that presented damning, incontrovertible evidence that the president abused his power or one that revealed that the whole proceeding was a partisan sham.
While polls before the hearings showed that 49% favored impeachment versus 47% who opposed it, a survey by Yahoo News and YouGov at the end of the hearings found support for impeachment at 48% and opposition at 45%. Other polls may eventually show movement but, at first blush, the drama of hearing the evidence presented out loud by real witnesses with evident credibility did not noticeably shift the overall dynamics.
Democrats and Republicans alike privately agreed that it looked unlikely that even a single Republican would vote for impeachment when it reaches the House floor. In the Senate, Republican strategists said they believed they might lose two senators â€” Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska â€” while Democratic strategists said they also might lose two â€” Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
â€œWeâ€™ve just had this partisan divide ever since the Clinton years,â€ said former Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va. â€œWhether it was Supreme Court nominations or this, itâ€™s just become a team sport, shirts and skins, no matter what the issues are.â€
Steve Elmendorf, the top aide to the House Democratic leader when Clinton was impeached, agreed that lawmakers appear locked into their positions. â€œExcept,â€ he cautioned, â€œwe are in the Trump show, where anything can happen. Two months ago, we did not think he was going to be impeached over a phone call we knew little about.â€
Among the wild cards that could still change the dynamics might be testimony by some of the key witnesses who so far have refused to talk, including John Bolton, the former national security adviser who opposed the pressure campaign and is waiting for a court ruling on whether he should appear.
Trump has long argued that an impeachment battle would help him politically by galvanizing his base against the elites trying to invalidate the 2016 election. While he has refused to provide testimony or documents to the House, arguing that the process is rigged against him, he is taking his case instead to evening rallies in sports arenas filled with supporters.
Trump and his allies took heart from a Marquette University Law School poll showing him with small leads against each of the Democratic front-runners among voters in Wisconsin, one of the most critical battleground states for 2020. That poll, taken during the first week of hearings, showed that support for impeachment in the state had slipped by four percentage points to 40%.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi was initially wary of pursuing impeachment unless it was likely to be bipartisan, recalling what happened to Clinton, who was impeached on a largely party-line vote in the House and acquitted in the Senate. House Republicans back then thought voters would reward them for pursuing impeachment of a president who lied under oath about a sexual affair with a former White House intern but instead it was Democrats who picked up seats in the 1998 midterm elections as the inquiry was underway.
With that in mind, todayâ€™s Democratic presidential candidates, while supporting impeachment, are treading lightly around it on the campaign trail, where voters generally do not bring it up. Instead, they emphasize issues like health care, gun control and income inequality, reflecting a fear about how impeachment will play come next fall.
But Comstock, who was a Republican staff aide investigating Clinton during his presidency, said the conclusions drawn from the electoral consequences of his impeachment were too narrow. â€œI do think both sides have maybe learned the wrong lesson,â€ she said.
While Republicans lost the midterm elections, they won the White House back in 2000 when Clintonâ€™s handpicked successor, Al Gore, fell short in the Electoral College despite running on a record of peace and prosperity.
Eventually, Comstock said, the public tires of scandal and seeks to move on. Trump may win acquittal in the Senate, but that does not mean the public will be as forgiving.
â€œWhile theyâ€™re now trying to make the best of it with fundraising and saying this is going to help us, that fatigueâ€ may set in, she said. â€œThere are people who just want a normal presidency.â€
A Split Decision From Congress Will Leave Voters With Final Say On Trump