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 TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos 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.

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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 BidenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left 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. 

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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 SchiffHillicon Valley: Schiff presses intel chief on staff changes | Warren offers plan to secure elections | Twitter's Jack Dorsey to donate B to coronavirus fight | WhatsApp takes steps to counter virus misinformation Schiff calls on DNI Grenell to explain intelligence community changes READ: Schiff plans to investigate Trump firing intel watchdog 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 RaskinTop House Oversight Democrats ask DHS to reduce immigrant detainee population 20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order Senators urge Congress to include election funds in coronavirus stimulus 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 EscobarTexas House Dems ask governor to issue stay-at-home order 20 House Dems call on Trump to issue two-week, nationwide shelter-in-place order Hispanic Democrats demand funding for multilingual coronavirus messaging 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.

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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 SandersTrump says Obama knows 'something that you don't know' about Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal | Small businesses struggling for loans | Treasury IG sends Dems report on handling of Trump tax returns Trump says Obama knows 'something that you don't know' about Biden Senators push for changes to small business aid MORE (D-Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisOn The Money: Mnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal | Small businesses struggling for loans | Treasury IG sends Dems report on handling of Trump tax returns Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Calif.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Sanders exit leaves deep disappointment on left Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president MORE (D-Minn.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerFormer Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report Michael Bennet endorses Biden for president Democrats salivate over Obama coming off sidelines MORE (D-N.J.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetMichael Bennet endorses Biden for president Zoom facing class-action suit over privacy, security shortfalls Hillicon Valley: Coronavirus tracking sparks surveillance concerns | Target delivery workers plan Tuesday walkout | Federal agency expedites mail-in voting funds to states | YouTube cracks down on 5G conspiracy videos MORE (D-Colo.) — and they would much prefer not to be confined to Washington with the Iowa caucuses set for Feb. 3. 

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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 PelosiTrip that led to acting Navy secretary's resignation cost 3K: reports Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal House Republicans, key administration officials push for additional funding for coronavirus small business loans 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 PetersonSNAP, airlines among final hurdles to coronavirus stimulus deal Pelosi: House 'not prepared' to vote remotely on coronavirus relief bill Lone Democrat to oppose impeachment will seek reelection MORE (Minn.) and Jefferson Van Drew (N.J.).

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No Republican voted in favor, although Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashHouse Armed Services chairman calls for removal of Navy chief Overnight Defense: Trump 'may look into' dismissal of Navy captain | Acting Navy chief stands by speech calling ousted captain 'stupid' | Dems call for chief's firing | Hospital ship to take coronavirus patients Democratic lawmakers call for Navy chief's firing 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.”