The sudden Democratic shift in favor of impeaching Trump, explained

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just announced an official impeachment inquiry. Here’s how we got here.

By Andrew Prokop

Courtesy of Vox

All of a sudden, President Donald Trump’s impeachment is looking likelier than ever.

Grappling with the latest revelations that Trump tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s family, more and more House Democrats are concluding that Trump abused his powers of office — and that it’s time, at long last, for an unambiguous impeachment inquiry.

Their number includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who announced Tuesday afternoon that “the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.”

Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi walks into a meeting with House Democrats.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi walks to a meeting with the House Democratic caucus to discuss launching impeachment proceedings against President Trump, on September 24, 2019.

It was a sign of newfound agreement within the Democratic caucus, which has been divided all year on whether to impeach Trump. There are still several who are vocally against impeachment, but by far the momentum has been toward escalating the effort. This week alone, about two dozen members who had previously been on the fence announced that they support an impeachment inquiry — and over two-thirds of House Democrats now back one.

Liberals, activists, and many Democratic voters have long argued in favor of impeachment for a variety of reasons, from the Mueller report’s findings to Trump’s general conduct in office. But moderates have been wary, viewing the move as controversial and certain to end in failure when the Republican-controlled Senate acquits Trump.

Previously, Pelosi sided with the moderates. Accordingly, while there was an impeachment investigation (of sorts) proceeding in the House Judiciary Committee, the party’s handling of it was muddled, and it was clear to everyone that leadership didn’t want an impeachment vote.

Rep. Al Green (D-TX) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) call for President Trumps impeachment.
Rep. Al Green (D-TX), stands with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) during a protest asking for impeachment of President Trump on Capitol Hill, on September 23, 2019.

But the latest allegations about Trump and Ukraine — allegations that the president tried to strong-arm a foreign power into investigating his potential 2020 rival — seem to be a bridge too far for Democrats.

Which means we are now headed toward a serious impeachment inquiry with Pelosi’s full backing after all. It will be up to House Democrats to decide precisely how they want to handle it. For instance, how much time do they spend investigating, before making a final decision? (There’s a general belief in the party that the impeachment issue should be resolved, one way or the other, by the end of the year, and Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler reportedly made comments to that effect in Democrats’ meeting Tuesday.)

Should the party press forward, the final step in the House would be a full vote on whether to impeach Trump. If a majority votes yes, things move to the GOP-controlled Senate, where it would take a two-thirds vote to actually remove Trump from office. That remains a very tall order, given his continued popularity among Republicans.

So unless some truly momentous bombshell emerges in the coming months, Trump is overwhelmingly likely to remain president. But impeachment would be historic nevertheless — it’s only ever happened to two presidents — and would be an enormous political story. And more broadly, more Democrats are now concluding it’s the only remedy for a president who they think just keeps abusing his power.

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The House can impeach a president over whatever it wants — though in practice, it’s been reserved for serious offenses

In the view of many if not most Democrats, there are a smorgasbord of corrupt, unethical, and unfit-for-office acts by President Trump.

These acts include (but are not limited to) the apparent obstruction of justice offensesoutlined in the Mueller report, the corruption involved in Trump’s continued ownership of his business while president, his seeming violation of campaign finance law with hush money payments, his bigotry, the administration’s family separation policy, and general erratic behavior and unfitness of character.

All year, then, the Democratic caucus been grappling with whether all this should merit the most severe remedy for presidential misconduct: impeachment.

“We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) said on the very first day of the new Congress, in January. (Democratic leaders were not happy, and Tlaib soon apologized for causing “a distraction.”)

Now, according to the Constitution, the House of Representatives can impeach the president of the United States for treason, bribery, or “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But that last category is famously vague. What is a high crime or misdemeanor, anyway?

The rarity of impeachment shows that it’s generally something Congress prefers not to undertake lightly. Only two presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) were impeached in US history, and both were acquitted. A third, Richard Nixon, faced certain impeachment but resigned before that could happen. In all cases, alleged violations of law were involved.

But really, the question of whether to impeach is up to the House. There’s no evidentiary standards or necessity for legal grounding of charges — it’s a political action. Practically, a majority of House members can impeach the president for whatever they want. If they have the votes, that is.

All this means that the decision over impeachment is inherently a political one — and Democrats’ hesitancy over it has, for the most part, been political as well.

Democratic leaders have feared the politics of impeachment

Despite general agreement in the Democratic Party that Trump is a bad president who has done a lot of bad things, party leaders have believed all year that impeaching him would be a political mistake. They’ve believed this for several reasons.

First is what they believe is the inevitable endpoint: If Trump is impeached by the House, he will then be acquitted by the Senate. The chamber is controlled by Republicans who have staunchly stood behind Trump so far. Even more importantly, it takes a two-thirds Senate vote to remove the president from office (67 senators). That is a very high bar and would require a massive collapse of Trump’s support (which is still very high among Republicans).

So Democratic leaders have long thought that impeachment will end in failure and defeat once Trump is acquitted and remains in office. They prefer, then, to focus on winning the 2020 election as the way to remove Trump.

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Beyond that, there’s been a sense that the politics of impeachment would be bad for Democrats generally: The idea doesn’t currently poll well. That assessment has been heavily disputed by impeachment supporters, who argue that drawing more attention to the alleged crimes of President Trump would in fact be good for Democrats’ chances of winning in 2020.

But to understand where leading impeachment skeptic Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been coming from, you have to understand the House map — which is biased in Republicans’ favor.

Though Trump lost the nationwide popular vote to Clinton by 2 percentage points in 2016, he won 228 House districts to her 207. So, under the current map, Democrats need to elect some members from districts Trump won, or they can’t get the 218 seats necessary for a majority.

Accordingly, Pelosi’s gameplan for winning another two years as speaker has been to protect those Democrats from Trump-supporting districts (currently, there are 35 of them). She doesn’t want them to be forced to take controversial, polarizing votes — particularly when those votes won’t end up achieving anything substantive, in her view. So she prefers to spend her majority’s time focusing on broadly popular issues and policy proposals.

But the best laid plans of mice and speakers often go awry.

Activists and voters have pushed Democrats to impeach for months

Until now, there was no unified agreement on what, precisely, an impeachment effort would focus on.

For the first few months of 2019, the consensus among the party elders was to wait and see what special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation turned up. But though Mueller’s report chronicled an apparent pattern of obstruction of justice by President Trump, he decided not to reach any conclusion on whether anything the president did violated the law. That reticence complicated any impeachment push.

Still, progressive activists, pro-Democratic media outlets, and many voters across the country vociferously argued that Trump’s conduct merited impeachment. And gradually, over the spring and summer, more than half of Democratic House members announced they supported opening an “impeachment inquiry.”

Impeachment protest in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower.
Members of Rise and Resist action group staged rally to support impeachment of President Trump in front of Trump International Hotel and Tower, in New York City, on August 5, 2019.

So, what is an impeachment inquiry?

While there are few hard-and-fast rules about how impeachment gets started in the House, there are two main 20th-century examples — Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — in which things really kicked off once the House Judiciary Committee and then the full House voted to approve an impeachment inquiry. There is no formal requirement that impeachment start in this way, but it signaled seriousness and urgency to the effort, and made clear the party was unified behind it.

All year, though, Pelosi fiercely resisted anything that could be called opening an impeachment inquiry. Meanwhile, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and many other Democrats faced intense pressure from constituents and activists demanding to know why they weren’t moving more toward impeaching Trump.

What ensued was a bizarre few months in which Nadler twisted himself in knots to avoid using the phrase “impeachment inquiry,” while also trying to signal that he was conducting a serious investigation that could lead to Trump’s impeachment.

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Meanwhile, other House liberals first pushed for the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry — before deciding that they didn’t need one after all, and that a Judiciary Committee probe into Trump that was started back in March could be rebranded as the impeachment investigation their constituents wanted.

It was all a bit of a mess, and Democrats clearly weren’t united on a path forward. Now, though, that appears to have changed.

It took a new scandal to change Pelosi’s political calculus

The months of pressure from activists and advocates set the context — but it took new information, about a new scandal, to finally spur party leaders to action.

On September 13, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) went public with some big news. A mysterious whistleblower from within the Trump administration had filed some sort of complaint, to the intelligence community’s inspector general. But the administration was preventing that complaint from being shared with Congress — even though that seemed to be required by law.

Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks to members of the media after meeting with intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson to discuss a whistleblower complaint regarding a phone conversation between President Trump and a foreign leader, on September 19, 2019.

The inspector general, Michael Atkinson, wrote in a letter to Schiff that he’d concluded the complaint was a matter of “urgent concern.” He also wrote that it “relates to one of the most significant and important of the [Director of National Intelligence’s] responsibilities to the American people.” But the administration was stonewalling. What were they trying to hide, Schiff asked?

A media frenzy, and several juicy leaks, ensued. And while the exact details and scope of the whistleblower complaint remain murky, reporters have nailed down that at least part of it involves a conversation between President Trump and the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky this July. In that conversation, Trump repeatedly urged Ukraine’s government to investigate Joe Biden’s family (specifically, his son Hunter’s business dealing in Ukraine).

Notably, this transpired while Trump was holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid that Ukraine badly needed for its conflict against Russia — and while Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was being fairly public about his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

Rather than years-old conduct about a past election, this scandal was alleged new and ongoing corrupt conduct, designed to swing the 2020 reelection. Trump also has basically admitted trying to get Ukraine to investigate Biden (though he claimed there was nothing wrong with that). As such, it was the last straw for many impeachment skeptics. Seven Democratic freshmen with military or intelligence backgrounds, including several who have hesitated to back impeachment all year, published a Washington Post op-ed Monday night changing their tune. “If these allegations are true, we believe these actions represent an impeachable offense,” they wrote.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) took to the House floor Tuesday and said in a thunderous speech, “I truly believe the time to begin impeachment proceedings against this president has come.”

And now, Pelosi has said the same — meaning an impeachment inquiry has finally, officially and unambiguously, begun.

A Trump protester holds a sign demanding his impeachment.
Protesters hold signs to impeach President Trump at Lafayette Square, near the White House, on August 6, 2019. 

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