The Memo: Democrats plunge into politics of impeachment

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

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats offer mixed reactions to Trump's Mideast peace plan James Taylor to perform at awards ceremony for Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week Trump offers two-state peace plan for Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid skepticism MORE (D-Calif.) fired the starting pistol on a huge political fight Tuesday, announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet 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 BidenPerry delegation talking points stressed pushing Ukraine to deal with 'corruption' GOP senator airs anti-Biden ad in Iowa amid impeachment trial Biden photobombs live national news broadcast at one of his rallies 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) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE’s report, the most recent reported actions by Trump prompted some moderate Blue Dog Democrats such as Rep. Jim CooperJames (Jim) Hayes Shofner CooperTaylor Swift on publicist's Trump warning before political post: 'F--- that, I don't care' Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Buttigieg targets Warren, Sanders on health care ahead of debate | Judge overturns ObamaCare transgender protections | Poll sees support drop for 'Medicare for All' The Memo: Democrats plunge into politics of impeachment 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 SandersNew campaign ad goes after Sanders by mentioning heart attack Biden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Steyer rebukes Biden for arguing with supporter he thought was Sanders voter 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-CortezBiden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa New economic confidence polls show why Bernie won't win the White House Ocasio-Cortez rips 'public charge' decision: 'The American Dream isn't a private club with a cover charge' 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 Devi HarrisSanders allies in new uproar over DNC convention appointments Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Harris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' MORE (D-Calif.), one of the top-tier presidential candidates, tweeted, “Enough. It’s time to impeach.”

The following morning, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — HHS has no plans to declare emergency over coronavirus | GOP senator calls for travel ban to stop outbreak | Warren releases plan to contain infectious diseases Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa 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 EmmerGOP leader warns lawmakers on fundraising: 'Getting our ass kicked' The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders, Warren feud rattles Democrats House GOP campaign chief: Members 'need to get their act together and raise more money' 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.