Ready or Not, Here Comes Impeachment

The recent revelations about Donald Trump’s attempt to bribe the President of Ukraine, in order to get political dirt on Joe Biden, once again raises the specter of Trump’s impeachment. What’s involved?

On Tuesday, September 24th, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced the commencement of a formal impeachment inquiry:

“…the Trump administration’s actions undermine both the national security and our intelligence and our protections of whistleblowers… For the past several months we have been investigating in our committees and litigating in the courts so the House can gather all the relevant facts and whether to exercise its Article 1 powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity of articles of impeachment.

…this week, the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.

Therefore, today I’m announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry and directing our six committees to proceed with their investigation under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.”

Pelosi’s actions carry political risk.  Until this week, the national polling on impeachment has been discouraging.  In July Quinnipiac asked, “Do you think that Congress should begin the process to impeach President Trump, which could lead to his removal from office, or don’t you think so?”  Only 32 percent of respondents said that Congress should begin the impeachment process. Now, the polls indicate positive movement.  The September 26, NPR/PBSNewsHour/Marist Poll (https://www.npr.org/2019/09/26/764724904/npr-pbs-newshour-marist-poll-americans-split-on-house-impeachment-inquiry ) indicates that 49 percent of respondents are in favor (46 percent opposed) and Independents are split.

It will be a slog to get impeachment to happen.  But it’s not impossible.  Here’s what’s necessary:

1.The Impeachment process has to move rapidly.  American don’t have the patience to stay with an impeachment process that drags on and on.  (That was one of the problems with the Mueller investigation and the arduous release of the Mueller report.)

One of the inherent problems is that Trump is a master at distraction.  He’s likely to do something bizarre — invade Greenland — in order to move public attention off impeachment.

Speaker Pelosi indicated that she plans to get the House to vote on impeachment this year.  That feels like the correct timeline.

2. The impeachment process must be focussed.  If the process is going to move rapidly and keep public attention, then it has to be focussed.  Pelosi is mindful of this; on September 26th, she indicated that the impeachment inquiry will focus on the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s interaction with Ukraine. (Many observers have noted that the complaint is very detailed (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/26/key-takeaways-allegations-trump-whistleblower-complaint/).)

That doesn’t mean that the six House committees that are investigating Trump’s improprieties should stop work.  What it does suggest is that all their findings should be funneled first through the Intelligence committee — chaired by Adam Schiff — which will do the bulk of the work on the whistleblower complaint, and then through the Judiciary committee — chaired by Jerry Nadler — which will present the impeachment motion for a vote by the House.  (That is, over the next couple of months, any relevant committee findings have to be funneled to Intelligence and Judiciary.)

3. The process has to sway independents.  We know that Trump is a polarizing figure.  With regard to impeachment, typically 90 percent of Republicans don’t want Trump impeached; around the same percentage of Democrats want him impeached.  So the critical voters are independents.  The impeachment inquiry has to be conducted in such a way that it moves the opinion of independents.  The inquiry has to be quick, focussed, and evenhanded.

4. The evidence has to be overwhelming.  In order to be seen as evenhanded the impeachment inquiry has to present overwhelming evidence of the Presidents’s culpability — there has to be “a smoking gun.”  There seems to be, in the whistleblower complaint, three very clear examples of the President’s wrongdoing:

a. Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the Ukrainian government, to investigate Joe Biden.

b. There was a conspiracy.  Trump involved Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, Attorney General Barr, and other Administration officials in his attempt to get The Ukrainians to investigate Biden.

c. The White House made multiple efforts to hide evidence of the Ukrainian effort.  There has been an obvious coverup.

5. The White House must cooperate.  The Trump Administration is between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.”  If they fully cooperate it will move the House inquiry closer to a vote.  If they don’t cooperate, the House Democrats will have further ammunition for their “cover up/obstruction” charges.

The whistleblower report contains evidence of the equivalent of the infamous Nixon tapes.  The report indicates:

“White House lawyers directed White House officials to ‘remove the electronic transcript from the computer system in which such transcripts are typically stored’ and place the word-for-word account on a server typically reserved for highly classified information, according to the complaint… White House officials said this was ‘not the first time’ that a presidential transcript was placed into this codeword-level system to shield politically sensitive information.”

The House Intelligence committee must be granted access to this special server.  If necessary, they will have to go to the Supreme Court to obtain this information.

6. The House Vote Has to Attract Some Republican Support.  If the House vote was held today, it would pass but with only Democratic support.  If the impeachment inquiry is quick, focussed, and produces overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt, then it should attract the votes of some Republican House members — certainly those in swing districts.

It’s possible to bring the House impeachment process to a vote before the end of the year.  Let’s worry about the Senate process in 2020.