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Donald Trump’s Fifth Avenue moment

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On January 23, 2016, at a campaign rally in Iowa, Donald Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” folding his fingers into the shape of a gun.

The president has now committed the political equivalent of such an infamous act. The notorious July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was the “shot.” The Constitution, the rule of law and our democracy are the collective “someone.” And the Oval Office is the equivalent of Fifth Avenue.

The events of last week left the nation’s capital reeling from what felt like an earthquake of 8.1 on the Richter scale. But make no mistake: Those events were caused by a president who tried to extort help from a foreign government to investigate a political opponent, and by an administration that knew Trump’s actions were grossly inappropriate but tried to cover up.  

The country is now being tested on whether the president’s figurative shot will lose him any supporters.  

More importantly, we are testing whether our institutions and the checks-and-balances system our Founders put in place – degraded, demeaned and beleaguered after three years of attack by this president – will be up to the task for which they were created.  

I am going to bet they are. 

What we saw last week started to move the needle in a meaningful way, not just with Democrats but with all Americans. 

The White House memo about the call was astounding for the blunt, obvious – if not literal – quid pro quo that seeps throughout the conversation. It was the kind of conversation that happens between two unequal parties, one seeking much-needed help and one dangling such help with the condition that a favor be granted in order to get it. 

Then the mind-blowing details of the intelligence community whistleblower report were made public, and it included the same specific information about the phone call that was in the White House’s memo.  

It is very simple to understand that Trump made a call to the Ukrainian president in which he asked for help investigating Joe Biden – his top political rival, who overwhelmingly beats Trump in many head-to-head general election polls – in exchange for the badly needed military aid that Ukraine had been asking for and which mysteriously had been held up, even though it was approved on a bipartisan basis.  

What comes next in the whistleblower report is perhaps even more damaging: The description of the deliberate coverup. The report describes White House officials who were directed to move the call transcript from a place commonly known to be used for storing transcripts of calls with world leaders to a more secure server only known to be used to store “codeword” highly sensitive information, including information about covert operations.

When all these damaging details became publicly known, the political tectonic plates started to shift.  

Prior to any of this coming out, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was not amenable to starting down the impeachment path. Moreover, the public did not have an appetite to impeach the president, though many Americans thought he deserved it.  

When news of the Trump phone call to Ukraine began seeping into the public’s understanding, voters changed their minds — even before the concrete details were known, as they are now.  

YouGov asked last Tuesday, before any of the documents had been made public: “If President Donald Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the country’s officials to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, would you support or oppose impeachment?” It found  55 percent supported impeachment — including 44 percent supporting it “strongly.” 

After the details were all made public, and suspicion of Trump’s egregious abuse of power was corroborated, seven moderate Democrats with national security credentials, who won in Trump-leaning congressional districts, came out in a Washington Post op-ed calling for an impeachment inquiry. Speaker Pelosi then announced that Democrats would begin an official impeachment inquiry.  

Democrats moved when it was necessary. They moved when Trump’s abuse of power was not only no longer tolerable but in plain sight, impossible to miss and in Trump’s own words.  

More recent polling shows the shift continues. A CBS YouGov poll released over the weekend showed a solid 55 percent of Americans not only support House Democrats opening up an impeachment inquiry but believe that it was necessary. Independents are now split whereas, before, a majority did not agree with impeachment.  

Donald Trump, meanwhile, is not handling any of this well, although we should not expect him to do so. But we should, perhaps, expect that Trump, in the midst of the greatest threat to his presidency to date, would understand the gravity of the situation and not make it worse. Yet, he is making it worse.

Trump’s tweets since the impeachment inquiry was launched have focused on the whistleblower and those who spoke to him or her. Trump believes them to be spies, guilty of treason and perhaps deserving of execution.    

He has called for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), to be arrested for his opening statement during a hearing with the director of national intelligence. He has ranted about how he deserves to face his accuser, the whistleblower, and warned of a coming “civil war” if impeachment succeeds.  

Such outrageously delusional comments potentially put lives at risk, especially those of the whistleblower and those who spoke to him or her.  

So, while Trump may not lose support among his base for the political version of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, he will not get away with betraying the American people, abusing his power and shredding the Constitution.  

The American people will make sure of that.  

Maria Cardona is a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a Democratic strategist and a CNN/CNN Español political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTCardona.

Tags Adam Schiff Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi New York City Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky Volodymyr Zelensky Washington Post whistleblower complaint YOUGOV

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