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The key impeachment question: What if Trump is acquitted?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” That’s what House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo On The Money: Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi bullish, Trump tempers optimism | Analysis: Nearly 1M have run out of jobless benefits Overnight Health Care: CDC expands definition of 'close contact' after COVID-19 report | GOP coronavirus bill blocked in Senate | OxyContin maker agrees to B settlement with Trump administration MORE (D-Calif.) has to worry about as House Democrats move closer to initiating impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. What if Trump is acquitted?

At this point, a House majority to impeach is still not there. A growing majority of House Democrats is calling for impeachment proceedings, but no Republican has joined them. And right now, the Republican-controlled Senate would be unlikely to convict and remove the president, which would require a two-thirds majority.

The crucial factor will be the polls. Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGreenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox Hillicon Valley: DOJ accuses Russian hackers of targeting 2018 Olympics, French elections | Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats | House Democrats slam FCC over 'blatant attempt to help' Trump Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said, “I want to make sure, before we go down this road, that we can persuade the public that this was the right thing to do.”

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The public isn’t there yet. While Trump’s job approval rating is still underwater (53 percent disapprove in the mid-September NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll), the polls show limited public support for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings (37 percent in the Politico–Morning Consult poll).

What’s driving public opposition to impeachment? It’s not love for President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE. NBC News reports that Trump “is more personally disliked than any of his recent predecessors.” Trump’s image is 51 percent negative, compared to 38 percent negative for Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson Clinton'Democrat-run cities' fuel the economy, keep many red states afloat Late-night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study A closing argument: Why voters cannot trust Trump on healthcare MORE, 33 percent negative for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Jaime Harrison on Lindsey Graham postponing debate: 'He's on the verge of getting that one-way ticket back home' Quinnipiac poll reports Biden leading Trump by 8 points in Pennsylvania MORE and 25 percent negative for George W. Bush.

Trump got elected by the rules, and voters do not like the idea of having their decision nullified by politicians. The politicians’ response? We have a constitutional responsibility to uphold the rule of law. As freshman Rep. Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiPhil Murphy says no coronavirus outbreaks in New Jersey linked to Trump fundraiser Marjorie Taylor Greene spars with GOP lawmaker over QAnon, antifa Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones MORE (D-N.J.) put it, “If all we do is leave it up to the American people to get rid of him, we have not upheld the rule of law. We have not set a precedent that this behavior is utterly out of bounds.”

The public’s view is, “We’ll be the judge of that.”

Their judgment does not look favorable right now. Half the respondents in the NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll say they would be “very uncomfortable” with the idea of Trump being reelected. Only a third say they would be “very uncomfortable” if either Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Democratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Obama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race MORE becomes president.

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Charged with abuse of power, President Trump is responding the same way he always responds: with defiance. He defies the Washington establishment, the news media, Congress, science, diplomatic norms, political correctness — and anyone who gets in his way. His supporters love him for it. His wife warned in 2016, “When you attack him, he will punch back 10 times harder.”

Congressional Democrats are betting that this time Trump has gone too far. He has defied the Constitution by soliciting foreign interference in the political process. “I have been very reluctant to go down the path of impeachment,” Rep. Schiff said on CNN. “But if the president is essentially withholding military aid at the same time he is trying to browbeat a foreign leader into doing something illicit — providing dirt on his opponent during a presidential campaign — then that may be the only remedy that is coequal to the evil that that conduct represents.”

What happens if Democrats impeach President Trump and fail to remove him from office? That’s what Emerson warned about: striking the king but failing to kill him (in this case, metaphorically). Leaving a wounded president in office could be costly. An impeachment battle could rally Trump’s army to seek revenge on Democrats at the polls next year.

Even if he loses his bid for reelection, Trump would very likely remain a force in American politics. He may refuse to acknowledge defeat, claiming the election returns are fraudulent. He did that even after winning in 2016. He still insists that he won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote if you discount voting by unauthorized immigrants.

Trump is likely to retain his hold over the Republican Party as long as his army can continue to enforce discipline in Republican primaries.

And something else. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution says, “No person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice.” If he loses next year, Trump will have been elected president only once. He would be eligible to run for president again in 2024.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).