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The Memo: Democrats plunge into politics of impeachment

The Memo: Democrats plunge into politics of impeachment
© Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP blocks Schumer effort to adjourn Senate until after election GOP noncommittal about vote on potential Trump-Pelosi coronavirus deal Overnight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas MORE (D-Calif.) fired the starting pistol on a huge political fight Tuesday, announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE.

On both sides, it will be a scorched-earth battle.

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Trump critics believe that, in addition to meeting a moral imperative, the inquiry will put the president under the most intense spotlight yet, exposing misdeeds and crushing his reelection hopes.

But the danger is that the pro-impeachment ardor among Democrats and progressives could remain unreciprocated among the broader electorate.

Pelosi has long been skeptical of the politics of impeaching Trump. The issue has never polled well among the general public, and she has repeatedly pumped the brakes when other Democratic members wanted to charge ahead.

But the clamor inside her caucus grew too loud to resist in the wake of news reports that the president repeatedly prodded the president of Ukraine to investigate 2020 Democratic front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter Trump narrows Biden's lead in Pennsylvania: poll Florida breaks first-day early voting record with 350K ballots cast MORE and his family.

In a formal announcement delivered at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Pelosi used the word “betrayal” three times about Trump.

His actions, she said, amounted to “betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”

Trump has appeared to acknowledge discussing Biden on a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky but denies any quid pro quo offer.

However, the leaders’ conversation took place while the administration was withholding almost $400 million in aid that Congress had voted to supply to the Eastern European nation.

Those events appear to be central to an official complaint made against the president by an unnamed whistleblower.

The complaint was deemed credible and urgent by the inspector general for the intelligence community, but the administration has so far thwarted attempts to provide the complaint to Congress, sparking Democratic ire.

Unlike the complex events detailed in former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s report, the most recent reported actions by Trump prompted some moderate Blue Dog Democrats such as Rep. Jim CooperJim CooperHouse Democrat to DeJoy: 'Is your backup plan to be pardoned like Roger Stone?' House Democrats call on State Department for information on Uighur prisoner Ekpar Asat Pelosi weighing bringing House back from August recess early over USPS issues: reports MORE (Tenn.) to hop on board the impeachment train.

By the time of Pelosi’s remarks, approximately 170 House Democrats — roughly two-thirds of her 235-member caucus — had declared their support for an impeachment inquiry.

Democratic strategists argue that the most recent reports have transformed the political landscape around impeachment in a way that even Mueller’s 448-page report did not.

“This tracks more closely to Watergate because there is a direct cause-and-effect harming a political foe,” strategist Joel Payne told The Hill.

Tad Devine, who worked for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Tipping point week for Trump, Biden, Congress, voters Biden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Push to expand Supreme Court faces Democratic buzzsaw MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign but is unaligned this cycle, agreed.

“This case is much more transparent. People can understand that the president of the United States should not be using the power of his office to get foreign governments to interfere in American elections,” Devine said.

“Everybody can see it and get it. You don’t need to read 500 pages.”

Had Pelosi sought to hold back the tide much longer, she would have risked alienating some of her own members and potentially deflating Democratic voters heading into 2020.

In recent days, progressives — and several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — had adopted a new, more aggressive tone, suggesting it would be an abdication of responsibility to hold off any longer.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds | Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires | Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate Biden distances himself from Green New Deal during town hall Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts MORE (D-N.Y.) complained on Twitter on Sunday that “the GOP’s silence & refusal to act shouldn’t be a surprise. Ours is.”

On Monday night, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter As VP Kamala Harris could be a powerful voice for women's retirement security The clock is ticking and Trump is still taking a shellacking MORE (D-Calif.), one of the top-tier presidential candidates, tweeted, “Enough. It’s time to impeach.”

The following morning, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: Trump takes criticism of Fauci to a new level | GOP Health Committee chairman defends Fauci | Birx confronted Pence about Atlas Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Government watchdog to investigate allegations of Trump interference at CDC, FDA MORE (D-Mass.), Biden’s most serious rival for the nomination, asserted, “The House must impeach. It must start today.”

Both candidates had previously called for Trump’s impeachment but emphasized the urgency in this week’s statements.

The goal for Pelosi and the Democrats will be to make the case for Trump’s impeachment beyond the ranks of those who already believe in it.

The details of the Ukrainian story have emerged too recently for there to be reliable polling on the issue. But when impeachment has previously surfaced as a possibility — most obviously in the wake of the Mueller report — it has been broadly unpopular.

A Quinnipiac University poll in late July, for example, indicated 60 percent of registered voters were opposed to beginning impeachment proceedings, while only 32 percent were in favor.

That was almost the exact inverse of the view among Democratic voters, 61 percent of whom favored beginning impeachment proceedings and 29 percent of whom were opposed.

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The fear among Pelosi and her allies has long been that the liberal grassroots are overestimating the public’s appetite for impeachment, that such an effort could take the political focus away from issues such as health care that were effective in Democrats’ victories in the 2018 midterms, and that Trump and his loyalists in the political and media worlds will try to jiujitsu the issue to his advantage.

The pro-Trump counterattack had already begun on Tuesday, with the president telling reporters that he believed a Democratic-led push for impeachment would be “a positive” for him “in the election.”

His campaign sent out a fundraising email inviting “patriots” to contribute to the “Official Impeachment Defense Task Force.”

Meanwhile, House Republican campaign chief Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl Emmer3 congressmen on Air Force One with Trump took commercial flight after president's diagnosis House Democrats' campaign arm reserves .6M in ads in competitive districts The Hill's Convention Report: Trump to attack Biden at final night of convention | Speech comes amid hurricane, racial justice protests | Biden accuses Trump of 'rooting' for violence MORE (Minn.) predicted in an email to reporters that “backing impeachment will cost the Democrats their majority in 2020.”

But Pelosi has clearly decided it’s a gamble that has to be taken.

“She wants to make sure she is on the right side of history,” said Payne.

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