The Memo: House vote raises stakes on impeachment

The stakes were raised in the impeachment battle on Thursday when the House voted, almost entirely along party lines, to back the inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe MORE’s conduct in relation to Ukraine.

The vote sets the stage for a move to public hearings — a shift that is sure to intensify the drama around the Democratic-led effort to make Trump only the third president in history to be impeached.

The specter of administration officials or others delivering damning testimony live on national television looms large for Trump.

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It threatens to deepen the trouble in which he finds himself stemming from a July 25 phone call in which he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Top Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE and his son Hunter.

Trump has already suffered a steady drip of negative information, in testimony from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and others.

But the fact that witnesses have so far testified in private has blunted the impact of their accounts. It has also left Democrats open to the charge from Trump allies that they are hiding or minimizing information that may be exculpatory of the president.

That is all about to change.

“Live coverage totally raises the stakes, because then the average voter, rather than hearing about it from the Democrats or from Trump or from the media, now will see it with their own eyes,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “That can have a different effect.”

The House voted 232-196 for a resolution setting out rules for the impeachment process Thursday. Only two Democrats, Reps. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonGroup of Democrats floating censure of Trump instead of impeachment: report Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Democrat who opposed Trump, Clinton impeachment inquiries faces big test MORE (Minn.) and Jeff Van DrewJeff Van DrewGroup of Democrats floating censure of Trump instead of impeachment: report Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Democrat who opposed Trump, Clinton impeachment inquiries faces big test MORE (N.J.), voted against it. No Republicans voted for it, though Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashGroup of Democrats floating censure of Trump instead of impeachment: report Democrats gear up for high-stakes Judiciary hearing Here are the Senate Republicans who could vote to convict Trump MORE (I-Mich.) — who left the GOP in protest of Trump — did so.

The near-total adherence to party lines will assuage the chief concern among party leaders on both sides. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Tech legal shield included in USMCA despite late Pelosi push GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' MORE (D-Calif.) had initially been tepid about impeachment for fear that it might negatively affect the fortunes of members in battleground districts. Trump allies have worried about erosion in its support from GOP members.

GOP strategists argue the vote demonstrated that Republicans, even in competitive districts, are not yet feeling serious heat to peel away from the president.

Democrats “haven’t put pressure on Republicans,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “The fact that no vulnerable Republicans voted with the Democrats shows how little pressure those lawmakers are under.”

Both sides also doubled down on their rhetoric, in a sign of the pitched battle to come.

White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamTrump, White House rip Democrats over impeachment articles Second appeals court backs lifting injunction on Trump 'public charge' rule Live coverage: Democrats, Republicans seek to win PR battle in final House impeachment hearing MORE released a statement accusing Pelosi and the Democrats of having an “unhinged obsession” with impeaching Trump and leading “a blatantly partisan attempt to destroy the president.”

Pelosi, for her part, asserted: “What is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our democracy.”

As a matter of political reality, the vote also makes it even more likely that Trump will be impeached. Figures from across the political spectrum, including Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, have recently suggested such an outcome is all but inevitable.

“You can bet the farm he will be impeached,” Berkovitz agreed. “The Democrats are running on the 2020 platform of impeaching Trump.”

The chances of Trump actually being convicted and removed from office, however, seem as low as the risks of impeachment itself are high. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, where the GOP holds the majority.

Numerous opinion polls have shown broad public support for the impeachment inquiry itself — a victory for Democrats in the court of public opinion. 

But voters are much more divided on the question of removing Trump from office.

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A recent Quinnipiac University poll, for example, showed strong support among registered voters for the inquiry, with 55 percent backing it and 43 percent disapproving. But the same poll showed an almost even split on the question of whether to convict Trump, an option favored by 48 percent but opposed by 46 percent.

Democrats believe they can keep the wind at their backs, with public testimony helping them make an even more compelling case against the president — something that could hobble his hopes of reelection next year regardless of whether he is ultimately acquitted by the Senate.

Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky said the main import of public hearings was “you now have the opportunity for the public to see what this investigation is about and to hear directly from witnesses — which obviously does not help the president.”

The president, meanwhile, is betting that a familiar refrain will see him through.

“The Greatest Witch Hunt in American History!” he tweeted on Thursday.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.