The Memo: Will Iran crisis sideline impeachment process?

The Memo: Will Iran crisis sideline impeachment process?
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There was no doubt about the main issue in American politics just one week ago: the impeachment of President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE and his imminent trial in the Senate.

But impeachment has since been overtaken on the news agenda by the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the ensuing crisis.

Impeachment has been pushed to the margins of discussion, not just in traditional media but also on social media, where references to a “World War III” trended as public anxiety crested.

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Some fervent Trump critics accused the president of having orchestrated the situation in Iran with this outcome in mind.

Comparisons have been made — just as they were when then-President Clinton green-lit bombings in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal — with the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog.” In that movie, a fictional president distracts from a sex scandal by fabricating a war.

On Thursday, left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted an image of The New York Times front page reporting the Clinton-era strikes, in an obvious allusion to Trump’s current actions.

Even those who do not see the strike on Soleimani in such Machiavellian terms wonder whether a significant international crisis will continue to draw attention away from impeachment — and, if so, whether Trump will benefit.

Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenOvernight Energy: Iconic national parks close over coronavirus concerns | New EPA order limits telework post-pandemic | Lawmakers urge help for oil and gas workers Bipartisan lawmakers urge assistance for oil and gas workers Lawmakers shame ex-Wells Fargo directors for failing to reboot bank MORE (D-Texas), one of the earliest and most emphatic advocates of impeachment, released a statement Monday in which he asserted, “While this is a time of uncertainty and turbulence for America, this is not a time to abandon the lingering task Congress faces regarding the impeached President.”

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle told The Hill, “The developments in Iran will certainly overshadow all of the impeachment coverage. The talk and momentum will be decreased substantially as we figure out what is going to happen in terms of our relationships in the Middle East and with our allies.”

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But Smikle also argued against the idea that there would be a political benefit to Trump.

Instead, he suggested, Trump’s decision to order the strike on Soleimani would lend new urgency to questions about his temperament and fitness for office.

It has been widely reported that similar strikes against the Iranian general were rejected by President Obama and President George W. Bush during their White House tenures because of fears that such a move would escalate tensions and potentially spiral out of control.

“The president’s behavior undergirds the rationale for impeachment for those who were supportive of it from the very beginning,” Smikle said. “The capriciousness of the president’s decision with respect to Iran fuels the concerns that he should be held more accountable for his actions.”

The first major poll to test public attitudes on the Soleimani strike emerged on Monday. 

A HuffPost-YouGov poll found the attack earned the approval of 43 percent of respondents and the disapproval of 38 percent. Nineteen percent said they were unsure.

Those initial results suggest Trump’s actions in Iran might be received in the same way as so many of his other controversies, with a polarized nation viewing them through the prism of like or dislike of the president.

Impeachment has divided the country roughly in half. On Monday afternoon, the RealClearPolitics polling average on impeachment and removal from office showed an exact tie, with 47.3 percent for and against.

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, said of impeachment, “at the moment it’s a wash because it is getting to be a long, confusing slog. Neither side has effectively made its case.”

It seems unlikely that will change even if impeachment moves back into the spotlight.

The Senate trial is assumed by observers across the political spectrum to be a foregone conclusion. Virtually no one expects Trump to be removed from office, since such an outcome would require a two-thirds majority in a chamber where Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage.

It seems fairly clear that Trump and his allies would prefer to get the Senate trial over and done with, especially with a presidential election just 10 months away.

Even if the people around Trump would prefer to keep the spotlight off impeachment, the president himself is not doing a great job of sticking to that objective.

In a Monday morning tweet, while the world was being roiled by the Iran crisis, Trump said, “Congress & the President should not be wasting their time and energy on a continuation of the totally partisan Impeachment Hoax when we have so many important matters pending.”

His allies, meanwhile, contend that the crisis in Iran could boost him for reasons beyond distracting from impeachment.

“At a time when Democrats would like to remove the president from office, he is showing strong leadership and resolve in the face of a growing threat from Iran,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Republican leadership aide with close ties to the White House.

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