The House of Representatives has opened a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. But what does that mean for the presidency and the 2020 election?
The inquiry is more troubling for the president than past investigations, including Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, said David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced the inquiry last month after a whistleblower complaint revealed that the president had pressured Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a phone call to investigate Joe Biden, former vice president and leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The last few weeks have seen a head-spinning series of updates, from Trump asking China to investigate Biden on live television to the revelation that a second whistleblower has filed a complaint.
“It’s a lot easier for people to understand what was done in the Ukraine situation, and that they think it was improper, than was true of the situation surrounding the Mueller report,” Rohde said.
The report, released earlier this year, did not find evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials, though it did not exonerate the president of obstruction of justice. Mueller couched his findings in terms Rohde referred to as “opaque.”
On Oct. 3, Rohde noted that public support had swung in favor of impeachment by about 10 percentage points since news of the whistleblower complaint first broke. A majority of Americans favor impeaching the president, according to The Washington Post.
House committees must now weigh whether to draft articles of impeachment against the president, which require a simple majority in the Democrat-controlled House to pass.
There are no firm guidelines as to what constitutes an impeachable offense. The standard laid out in the Constitution is “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which may not always be ordinary criminal offenses, Rohde noted.
“What is an impeachable offense is what the House of Representatives chooses to say is an impeachable offense,” he said.
If the House votes to pass the articles of impeachment—thereby impeaching Trump—the Senate will hold a trial to determine whether to remove him from office. If the 47 Democratic senators and two independent senators vote for impeachment, an additional 20 Senate Republicans would have to vote to convict for the necessary two-thirds majority.
Rohde said that this is highly unlikely. Most Republicans remain opposed to impeachment, and Republican senators who voted for impeachment could face the end of their political careers, he added.
Ian MacMullen, an associate professor of the practice in political science who has studied the development of “post-truth” politics, said that it is improbable that any of the president’s staunch supporters will swing in favor of impeachment.
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“I would think there is a sizeable chunk of people on both sides who aren’t moveable,” he said.
Not only do people increasingly get their news from partisan news sources, he said, but many also disregard facts for one of several reasons. They may believe that there is no truth to political matters, that truth does not matter as much as tribal allegiance or that we cannot find the truth among competing, partisan narratives.
The divide in public opinion is visible on Duke’s campus.
“It’s not really arguable that [Trump’s] committed multiple impeachable offenses,” said senior Lee Rodio, vice-chair of Duke Democrats. He praised Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and described impeachment as an act of “putting country over party.”
Senior Nikhil Sridhar, chair of Duke College Republicans, took a different view.
“The few guys I’ve spoken to [in College Republicans] say there’s nothing impeachable there,” he said. “I’m inclined to agree with them there.”
Sridhar added that impeachment proceedings were a partisan move, noting that House Democrats “have been wanting to go after Trump for a while.”
However, there were signs of common ground. Sridhar acknowledged that Trump’s call was “fishy,” and he said he was not opposed to an investigation. Rodio said that he thinks there is a bigger swing vote than many people think and that it is possible to change people’s minds by educating them.
MacMullen said that there are still voters who can be convinced by new evidence and pointing to the shift in public opinion that has already taken place.
“We might be seeing some evidence now that there are enough people who can potentially be swayed by a sufficient quantity of easily digestible facts,” he said. “And that’s clearly the Democrats’ hope.”
MacMullen said that, when it comes to public views of impeachment, a lot will depend on how successfully Trump and his defenders control the framing of the debate.
As of now, much of the discussion has focused on Trump’s decision to withhold more than $391 million in security aid to Ukraine around the time of his phone call with Zelensky. Trump and his defenders have argued that the president did not commit a crime because he did not explicitly offer a quid pro quo—an arrangement where the aid was contingent on an investigation into the Bidens.
“It’ll be interesting to see both whether Trump’s people succeed in shaping the public debate so that the existence of a quid pro quo comes to seem as if it’s necessary for impeachment,” MacMullen said. “And if they do, of course, it’ll be interesting to see whether enough Republican elites are willing to overlook all the strong circumstantial evidence of precisely such a quid pro quo.”
One question has hung over the inquiry so far: how will it impact the 2020 election? There has been a lot of media focus on Biden, as an unsubstantiated claim about his son’s business dealings in Ukraine was at the heart of Trump’s request for an investigation.
“[Biden’s] response has been angry… saying that he won’t be pushed around, and things like that,” Rohde said. “I think that part is to his benefit because of the way opinion has been shifting against him.”
Rohde noted that the Ukraine story is one of many reasons that Biden’s bid for the nomination could falter, including concerns about his age.
And as for the general election? Will Democrats successfully convince voters that Trump is unfit for office? Will the President use impeachment to rally his supporters and sail to victory? For Rohde, it is far too early to tell.
“Anything from rebounding to Trump’s benefit to sealing his demise could be the outcome,” he said. “And it just all depends on how this plays out.”