Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, has started a formal impeachment inquiry. This happened after Pelosi has long been rather cool on the impeachment question. Some new, leftist congressmen get a lot of attention in the media, but say for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in a safely Democratic district. However, there are 32 Democratic Congressmen who, in 2018, got elected in districts that Trump had carried two years earlier. They are crucial for the Democratic majority in Congress and for Pelosi’s Speakership – and they were against impeachment. The argument was: Impeachment is dead on arrival in the Senate, it might further divide an already highly polarized nation, it might mobilize Trump’s base and cost Democrats the majority in the House. Just as a reminder: Bill Clinton’s personal approval rating was rarely higher than on the day that the Republican majority in the House voted to impeach him.
This has all changed last week after the phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became public. In the American presidential system, parliament can’t overthrow the government with a vote of no confidence (like it is the case in most European countries). Impeachment is for high crimes, so for legal reasons, but of course the process today is highly political as well.
A simple majority is needed in the House of Representatives to impeach the President. This seems likely to happen at this point in time. Even some of the moderate Democrats mentioned above seem at least open to impeachment now. The case then moves to the Senate, where a majority of two thirds will be needed to remove the president from office. Republicans control the Senate so it would take a significant break in the ranks in the Republican party. This doesn’t look likely to happen at this point in time, but pressure on Republicans, especially moderate Republicans in swing states, will rise. Outside groups are already running tv ads. So far, Republicans are pretty much sticking to the party’s talking points, which is that there was no “quid pro quo”, meaning that Trump didn’t explicitly use the withholding of the funds for Ukraine to pressure President Zelensky. Maybe that can indeed never be proven, but still, Trump in his own words is admitting that he asked Zelensky to dig up dirt on a political opponent, and calls it a perfect call. Once the case moves to the Senate, the spotlight will be on the Republicans who will have to answer if this really is ok behavior for President Trump – and any future president for that matter.
It will be interesting to see how things will evolve from now on when new evidence will eventually come out and we get a clearer picture of how the public sees impeachment. According to first polls, the American electorate seems evenly split on the question. While Trump looks unlikely to be removed from office at this point in time, it sure makes him more dependent on Republicans in Congress. The most important person for Trump is now pretty much Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. While Trump as a businessman is used to giving orders, it’s now actually the other way around. McConnell can tell the president what he would like to get for ensuring Trump’s survival.
A direct match up and battle in the media with President Trump is, in principle, good for any Democrat. The same is true for Joe Biden in the short run. But the next weeks and months will likely raise some uncomfortable questions on the business dealings of the family around the former Vice President.
I’m afraid that the impeachment is also not the best of news for the 20 or so Democratic Presidential candidates who seek media coverage, funds and activists. Attention is a zero-sum game and for the next weeks, everybody will talk about impeachment and Trump. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamela Harris and the others will sure be asked about their opinions, but the action and the spotlight will be in Congress.