Five questions looming over impeachment

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend will provide only a brief pause from developments in the impeachment inquiry.

Articles of impeachment against President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE over his dealings with Ukraine are widely considered near-inevitable — and imminent.

But there are several unknowns that impeachment watchers will be closely tracking to get a clearer picture of the political impact heading into 2020.


Here are the big questions looming.

Where will the polls go? 

Each side is trying to make the case that public opinion is trending in their favor — but there is little evidence either way.

There was a measurable rise in pro-impeachment sentiment around the time that Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became public in late September. 

In that call, Trump prodded Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a conspiracy theory relating to purported Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. 

All of the drama since then — high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill and counterblasts from the president’s Twitter account and his political and media allies — has not shifted the ground appreciably. 

A CNN/SSRS poll released Tuesday showed exactly the same split as the previous month on the question of whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office. Fifty percent of U.S. adults surveyed were in favor of his removal, 43 percent were against — the same as in late October.


A Quinnipiac University Poll survey, also released Tuesday, showed less robust support for removal and a slight shift in Trump’s direction from a month earlier. The Quinnipiac survey found 45 percent in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal, and 48 percent against. In October, those figures had been reversed.

Trump’s deeply polarizing nature is a big part of the reason for the relatively static poll numbers. Republican voters overwhelmingly stand with him; Democrats almost universally detest him. 

That being so, much is being made of the effect of impeachment on independent voters. But there, too, the jury is still out.

An Emerson College poll released Nov. 21 caused a big stir in political circles because it appeared to show a significant movement against impeachment among independent voters. The CNN poll, on the other hand, showed independents supporting Trump’s removal from office, albeit by a narrow margin — 47 percent in favor of removal versus 45 percent against.

Partisans can make the case that some shift in public opinion is just around the next corner, but there is sparse evidence to back up that argument.

What will the charges be against Trump?

Democrats are already debating how to frame articles of impeachment against Trump — and the outcome isn’t far away.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Trump pardons Flynn | Lawmakers lash out at decision | Pentagon nixes Thanksgiving dining hall meals due to COVID-19 Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Trump pardons Michael Flynn MORE (D-Calif.) said this week in a letter to colleagues that his panel would send its report to the House Judiciary Committee “soon after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving recess.” Lawmakers are due back in town Monday.

But Schiff’s colleagues have divergent views on how to approach the next step.

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act COVID-19 and the problem of presidential succession MORE (D-Md.), who taught constitutional law before being elected to Congress, told CNN that he would like to “look at the whole pattern of obstructionism by the White House,” while Rep. Veronica EscobarVeronica EscobarMaloney vows to overhaul a House Democratic campaign machine 'stuck in the past' Hispanic Caucus endorses Cárdenas to lead DCCC Progressive lawmakers call for United Nations probe into DHS 'human rights abuses' MORE (D-Texas) said that going broad could “pose challenges” and that she strongly believes "in being as focused as possible.”

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and the author of a 2017 book on impeachment, told The Hill there was compelling evidence of Trump’s involvement in four crimes: bribery, extortion, conspiracy and violations of campaign-finance laws.

Lichtman also argued there should be another article of impeachment dealing broadly with “abuse of power, which need not charge a crime.”

How soon will the process end? 

Democrats are determined not to get bogged down in the impeachment process. 


They worry that the power of congressional testimony will get dulled by familiarity over time and that the drumbeat of pro-Trump rhetoric may begin to take a toll. 

There is also the 2020 election calendar to consider. If the House votes to impeach Trump, the action will shift to the Senate for a trial.

Six senators are running for the Democratic nomination — Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Warren, Brown voice support for controversial Biden budget office pick Biden's economic team gets mixed reviews from Senate Republicans MORE (D-Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWho will replace Harris in Senate? 'Rising' discusses Wisconsin formally declares Biden won election following recount Moderate Democrats: Everyone's older siblings MORE (D-Calif.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (D-Minn.), Cory BookerCory BookerBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Policy center calls for new lawmakers to make diverse hires Dangerously fast slaughter speeds are putting animals, people at greater risk during COVID-19 crisis MORE (D-N.J.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry MORE (D-Colo.) — and they would much prefer not to be confined to Washington with the Iowa caucuses set for Feb. 3. 

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold its first impeachment inquiry hearing Wednesday, but Democrats hope the overall process can be confined to about two weeks.

Such a schedule, if they stick to it, would likely see a House vote on impeachment before the end of the year, and a Senate trial at the start of 2020.

Can both parties maintain unity? 

The short answer: Probably. 


There has been remarkably little evidence of any serious breaches from either side. 

When Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (D-Calif.) put advancing the impeachment inquiry to a vote at the end of October, just two Democrats voted against it: Reps. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? A louder voice for women everywhere Former Minnesota Democratic leader quits party MORE (Minn.) and Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.).

No Republican voted in favor, although Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashIncoming GOP lawmaker shares video of hotel room workout, citing 'Democrat tyrannical control' Rundown of the House seats Democrats, GOP flipped on Election Day Romney congratulates Biden after victory MORE (I-Mich.), who left the GOP in protest of Trump earlier in the year, did so.

The parties’ unanimity is reflecting the polarization of the electorate at large. 

“There doesn’t seem to be a huge break in those numbers because only 12, 13, 14 percent of Republicans support [the impeachment inquiry] and 83, 84, 85 percent of Democrats support it,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and a polling expert at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Unless that changes — and there is no sign it will — each party’s solidarity will likely hold firm.

For Democrats and Republicans alike, there is little incentive to break from the party line.


What happens once the dust settles?

Virtually no one expects the Senate to vote in favor of removing Trump from office. The most likely outcome right now is that he will go into his reelection campaign as only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached, but the first to seek reelection after an impeachment trial. 

That matters, in terms of his actions and his legacy. But does it matter electorally?

Trump’s approval rating has not moved appreciably during the impeachment process. But his standing remains low by historical standards, and some of the more specific details revealed by polls on impeachment augur very badly for him. The CNN survey, for example, indicated 61 percent of women believe he should be impeached and removed from office.

Still, the nation is at a point where partisans often seem to exist in different universes. Where Trump critics see clear evidence of corruption and abuse of power, his most loyal supporters see a concerted effort by his enemies to delegitimize him.

“I don’t see a lot of evidence that public opinion has moved in one direction or the other,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I’m not sure it is doing very much except rallying the base of both parties. I think, if anything, it is rallying Republicans around Trump.” 

But Lichtman, the history professor, argued that even modest shifts in public opinion could be telling — and disagreed with the conventional wisdom that Democrats need to finish the process as soon as possible. 

“In terms of public opinion, it doesn’t have to move much,” he said. “If it moved from 50 to 56 percent [in favor of impeachment] that would be huge. And, in terms of the politics of this, why not have Trump in the dock in the midst of a presidential election? I don’t see the problem.”