Five questions looming over impeachment

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend will provide only a brief pause from developments in the impeachment inquiry.

Articles of impeachment against President Trump over his dealings with Ukraine are widely considered near-inevitable — and imminent.

But there are several unknowns that impeachment watchers will be closely tracking to get a clearer picture of the political impact heading into 2020.

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Here are the big questions looming.

Where will the polls go? 

Each side is trying to make the case that public opinion is trending in their favor — but there is little evidence either way.

There was a measurable rise in pro-impeachment sentiment around the time that Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became public in late September. 

In that call, Trump prodded Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a conspiracy theory relating to purported Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. 

All of the drama since then — high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill and counter-blasts from the president’s Twitter account and his political and media allies — has not shifted the ground appreciably. 

A CNN/SSRS poll released Tuesday showed exactly the same split as the previous month on the question of whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office. Fifty percent of U.S. adults surveyed were in favor of his removal, 43 percent were against — the same as in late October.

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A Quinnipiac University poll, also released Tuesday, showed less robust support for removal and a slight shift in Trump’s direction from a month earlier. The Quinnipiac survey found 45 percent in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal, and 48 percent against. In October, those figures had been reversed.

Trump’s deeply polarizing nature is a big part of the reason for the relatively static poll numbers. Republican voters overwhelmingly stand with him; Democrats almost universally detest him. 

That being so, much is being made of the effect of impeachment on independent voters. But there, too, the jury is still out.

An Emerson College poll released Nov. 21 caused a big stir in political circles because it appeared to show a significant movement against impeachment among independent voters. The CNN poll, on the other hand, showed independents supporting Trump’s removal from office, albeit by a narrow margin — 47 percent in favor of removal versus 45 percent against.

Partisans can make the case that some shift in public opinion is just around the next corner, but there is sparse evidence to back up that argument.

What will the charges be against Trump?

Democrats are already debating how to frame articles of impeachment against Trump — and the outcome isn’t far away.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said this week in a letter to colleagues that his panel would send its report to the House Judiciary Committee “soon after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving recess.” Lawmakers are due back in town on Monday.

But Schiff’s colleagues have divergent views on how to approach the next step.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who taught constitutional law before being elected to Congress, told CNN that he would like to “look at the whole pattern of obstructionism by the White House,” while Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) said that going broad could “pose challenges” and that she strongly believes “in being as focused as possible.”

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and the author of a 2017 book on impeachment, told The Hill there was compelling evidence of Trump’s involvement in four crimes: bribery, extortion, conspiracy and violations of campaign-finance laws.

Lichtman also argued there should be another article of impeachment dealing broadly with “abuse of power, which need not charge a crime.”

How soon will the process end? 

Democrats are determined not to get bogged down in the impeachment process. 

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They worry that the power of congressional testimony will get dulled by familiarity over time and that the drumbeat of pro-Trump rhetoric may begin to take a toll. 

There is also the 2020 election calendar to consider. If the House votes to impeach Trump, the action will shift to the Senate for a trial.

Six senators are running for the Democratic nomination — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) — and they would much prefer not to be confined to Washington as the Iowa caucuses loom on Feb. 3. 

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold its first impeachment inquiry hearing on Wednesday, but Democrats hope the overall process can be confined to about two weeks.

Such a schedule, if they stick to it, would likely see a House vote on impeachment before the end of the year, and a Senate trial at the start of 2020.

Can both parties maintain unity? 

The short answer: Probably. 

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There has been remarkably little evidence of any serious breaches from either side. 

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put advancing the impeachment inquiry to a vote at the end of October, just two Democrats voted against it: Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.) and Jeff Van Drew (N.J.).

No Republican voted in favor, although Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who left the GOP in protest of Trump earlier in the year, did so.

The parties’ unanimity is reflecting the polarization of the electorate at large. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a huge break in those numbers because only 12, 13, 14 percent of Republicans support [the impeachment inquiry] and 83, 84, 85 percent of Democrats support it,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and a polling expert at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

Unless that changes — and there is no sign it will — each party’s solidarity will likely hold firm.

For Democrats and Republicans alike, there is little incentive to break from the party line.

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What happens once the dust settles?

Virtually no one expects the Senate to vote in favor of removing Trump from office. The most likely outcome right now is that he will go into his reelection campaign as only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, but the first to seek reelection after an impeachment trial. 

That matters, in terms of his actions and his legacy. But does it matter electorally?

Trump’s approval rating has not moved appreciably during the impeachment process. But his standing remains low by historical standards, and some of the more specific details revealed by polls on impeachment augur very badly for him. The CNN survey, for example, indicated 61 percent of women believe he should be impeached and removed from office.

Still, the nation is at a point where partisans often seem to exist in different universes. Where Trump critics see clear evidence of corruption and abuse of power, his most loyal supporters see a concerted effort by his enemies to delegitimize him.

“I don’t see a lot of evidence that public opinion has moved in one direction or the other,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I’m not sure it is doing very much except rallying the base of both parties. I think, if anything, it is rallying Republicans around Trump.” 

But Lichtman, the history professor, argued that even modest shifts in public opinion could be telling — and disagreed with the conventional wisdom that Democrats need to finish the process as soon as possible. 

“In terms of public opinion, it doesn’t have to move much,” he said. “If it moved from 50 to 56 percent [in favor of impeachment] that would be huge. And, in terms of the politics of this, why not have Trump in the dock in the midst of a presidential election? I don’t see the problem.”

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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