Is the House of Representatives about to finally start impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump?
Calls from Democratic lawmakers to do something have gained momentum this week after the president used an official phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating the son of his potential presidential rival, former vice-president Joe Biden. And on Tuesday afternoon, house speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of a formal inquiry into whether impeachment proceedings should begin.
She said on Tuesday that Trump had committed a violation of the law: “This week the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take action that would benefit him politically… The president must be held accountable. No-one is above the law.”
The Ukraine news is entirely bizarre; according to a whistleblower – whose identity has not yet been released, but who reported the act, Trump demanded help no fewer than eight times during the phone call. Having urged a foreign power to work on behalf, essentially, of his re-election campaign, Trump has left himself widely exposed to impeachment charges.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously refused to be drawn on the question of impeachment. As I wrote in May:
In part, Pelosi may have hoped that by holding off on impeachment she has an opportunity to work with the White House to pass crucial legislation. Wednesday’s meeting, for example, was supposed to be about passing a much-needed infrastructure bill.
But the main reason for her reluctance is likely tactical. As 538.com points out, Pelosi was in Congress in 1998, when Republicans instigated impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky and subsequently suffered a backlash. She fears impeachment proceedings would give more fuel to the outrage machine that powers Trump’s activist support, and drag Democrats off-message during the 2020 campaign. “Trump is goading us to impeach him,” she said in May. “That’s what he’s doing. Every single day he’s just like taunting, taunting, taunting because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to solidify his base.”
She may be right. Impeachment polls fairly poorly among independent voters, who opposed it 51 per cent to 40 in a May NPR/Marist poll. It also showed that, even among self-described Democrats, 23 per cent oppose impeachment proceedings. A CNN/SSRS poll this month showed 59 per cent of Americans opposed to impeaching the president. And, of course, with Republicans still in control of the Senate, which ultimately decides on impeachment, the proceedings would not be anywhere near likely to succeed.
It is also possible that Pelosi’s reticence is tactical – wanting an impeachment proceeding to be timed so as to best impact the 2020 election. She may have felt that any impeachment effort begun now, no matter how grand a spectacle, would be concluded by January 2020 and might have faded in the public memory by election day in November. Now that an inquiry is started, she may want to prolong the process as much as possible in order for it to have the maximum effect.
But calls from her caucus are increasing, and the outrage seems to have been some kind of watershed moment. An inquiry is the first step down that road, though where it leads remains uncertain.