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Impeachment chat: Washington reporters tackle questions on inquiry

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Jess: What’s the significance of this fact record? Why’s that important, if we already have a sense of how this may end? 

Peter: The fact record is not good for the president. How bad, depends on your interpretation of the seriousness of his actions. Remember, removal is not impeachment’s only consequence. He’ll have an asterisk next to his name in history. That’s not nothing.

Linda: He would be only the third U.S. president in history to be impeached (fourth, if you include Richard Nixon’s certain impeachment, before he resigned). For Democrats, impeaching Mr. Trump is important because, in their view, he has openly abused power, and is violating the Constitution. 

Democrats also believe they gain politically by moving to impeach – they are pulling their party together at a time of great intra-party division.

Jess: And Republicans? Do they have anything to gain from any of this, if things go as expected?

Washington

Jessica Mendoza (Congress reporter): Hi everyone, welcome back to the grind! Hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving weekend, and have fresh minds – and full bellies – to take on a new wave of impeachment news.

Ahead of the break we asked readers to send in questions about impeachment. Elliot Kim from Fullerton, California, hit on something that’s top of mind for many right now: “What does this actually change? Both parties seem completely entrenched in their respective narratives, with almost no common ground between the two. What are potential strategic reasons for engaging in what’s being called by a great many analysts ‘political performance’?”

Linda Feldmann (Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent): It may be a “political performance,” but the Democrats have no choice now but to proceed. You don’t start an inquiry without knowing exactly where it’s going — and as of now, the House will impeach and the Senate will acquit. President Donald Trump will remain in office.

But that doesn’t mean things will stay exactly the same after acquittal.

Peter Grier (senior Washington writer): I would say the performance produced a fact record. There were two channels of foreign policy to Ukraine, one directed by Rudy Giuliani. A number of U.S. diplomats thought that Ukraine had to start investigations to get things it wanted from the United States. Nobody testified that they heard the president actually say that, though.

Linda: So there was something for each side in the hearings.

Jess: Peter, what’s the significance of this fact record? Why’s that important, if we already have a sense of how this may end? 

Peter: The fact record is not good for the president. How bad, depends on your interpretation of the seriousness of his actions. Remember, removal is not impeachment’s only consequence. He’ll have an asterisk next to his name in history. That’s not nothing.

Linda: He would be only the third U.S. president in history to be impeached (fourth, if you include Richard Nixon’s certain impeachment, before he resigned). For Democrats, impeaching Mr. Trump is important because, in their view, he has openly abused power, and is violating the Constitution. 

Democrats also believe they gain politically by moving to impeach – they are pulling their party together at a time of great intraparty division.

Jess: And Republicans? Do they have anything to gain from any of this, if things go as expected?

Peter: I think the short-term political consequences could go many different directions. It could fire up Trump voters. The public might see it as overreach. Or they might decide Mr. Trump is in essence guilty, even if not removed. The whole thing is an “onward through the fog” moment.

Linda: Impeachment is certainly firing up Republicans – but Trump voters are already fired up. Each still only gets one vote. 

Peter: Mr. Trump’s approval ratings have been remarkably stable throughout his presidency, and that’s continued during impeachment. In that sense, it is just more of the same – everybody is already dug into their opinion of our singular chief executive.

Jess: That’s one line of thinking that’s really taken hold, but I think there’s some polling that shows there’s some folks who might be willing to change their minds

Linda: There are some voters who are still persuadable on impeachment and removal. Women support impeachment way more than men and are more dug in than men. Some 20% of men compared to 9% of women say their opinion on impeachment could change, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll

Jess: That lines up with broader trends around gender and the Trump presidency.

Linda: I think it would take a massive blockbuster revelation to move public opinion in a major way. See “smoking gun tape, Richard Nixon.” 

Jess: So perhaps in the end it comes back to the long-term historical implications, and the more imminent political ones (i.e., 2020). What do we know about how President Bill Clinton’s impeachment affected politics after the fact? 

Linda: Things pretty much went back to normal, because it served the interests of both parties for that to happen. Longer term, the Republicans won the 2000 presidential election. Impeachment could have been a factor there.

Peter: In that sense, things did go back to normal. But in another, the Clinton impeachment changed what “normal” was. Mr. Clinton himself tried really hard to focus on day-to-day business, and he continued to do that. Without impeachment, would he have been less disciplined? Al Gore felt he had to show that he wasn’t aligned too closely with his boss, and didn’t ask for Mr. Clinton’s political help in 2000 – which he needed.

So who knows? That’s the “onward through the fog” effect I was talking about.

Linda: Yes – I agree. Mr. Clinton was furious that Mr. Gore distanced himself. Mr. Clinton was great at “rallying the troops.” Mr. Gore, not so much. Some people argue that that cost Mr. Gore the election

Jess: The difference, of course, is that Mr. Trump is running for reelection – not something we’ve seen before. But regardless, the results of impeachment will continue to shape the idea of what is politically “normal,” which is already something the country has been wrestling with since Election Day 2016.

Linda: I agree. We’re seeing a “normalization” of impeachment.

Jess: How might timing considerations affect the way impeachment plays out from here?

Peter: That’s a big question. Do Democrats continue to move quickly toward an impeachment vote? They’re on track to wrap up around Christmas. Or do they extend it? 

Jess: They’re pretty much hitting the ground running. This week, the House Intelligence Committee is set to review, and then vote on, the report they’re compiling. That vote, scheduled for Tuesday, will determine whether or not to send the whole matter over to the House Judiciary Committee, which is in charge of drafting articles of impeachment.

Peter: Judiciary is already set to begin hearings this week. The first is a panel of academic impeachment experts.

Linda: Is that just throat-clearing, or will anything serious come of that?

Jess: I’ve heard it said that this hearing is sort of an appetizer to the main course.

Linda: Perhaps a show of partisanship on each side? Judiciary is a much livelier bunch than the House Intelligence Committee.

Peter: Yes, I think it will be as much brick-throwing as throat-clearing. 

Jess: But the timing is tough for Democrats, with only a few weeks left in the year. Is there any reason they need to get all this done before the year ends?

Linda: They don’t want a Senate impeachment trial to crowd out the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, which are two months away. That would keep some key senators stuck in Washington, rather than out campaigning.

Jess: So we’re back to politics – and the promise of a very full legislative calendar in the coming weeks. (And that’s not even considering the fact that current government funding ends Dec. 20! Congress needs to come up with a deal for that, too.)

Peter: Democrats also don’t want the eventual nominee to be typed as the impeachment candidate. They want to make 2020 about other stuff, like health care. 

Jess: Makes sense – it’s how the party won the House in 2018. What will you be watching most closely in the coming weeks?

Peter: Right now, I am paying close attention to how partisans are already picking apart the testimony that has been given. Some people have contradicted each other, or said stuff that may not (or may) be credible. There’s a chance that becomes an issue in further hearings.

If the House votes to impeach, the Senate trial that follows will likely involve testimony about alleged misdeeds of Joe Biden and his son, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. It is going to be very interesting to see who gets called to deliver that testimony and what they say.

Jess: And whether the White House will even participate!

Peter: Right! They’ve turned down the opportunity to participate in Wednesday’s Judiciary hearing. But they’ve left open the possibility of joining in down the line in the House. And in the Senate, the GOP will control the proceedings.

Jess: So, just to sum up what to keep an eye on: possible fireworks as Judiciary picks up the mantle; who else will be called to testify; and how the Senate may decide to manage the proceedings if (and when) the House votes to impeach. It’ll be a busy few weeks in Washington.

Peter: Yes, hardly time for Christmas shopping! By the way, I recommend tree ornaments from the White House Historical Association – they have one for each administration. They’re great for political junkies.

For all of our impeachment coverage, check out and bookmark csmonitor.com/impeachment.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.



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