Impeachment Will Polarise the US Further, But Will It Dislodge Trump?

31 October 2019

By Dr Andrew Gawthorpe

This article previously appeared on Australian Institute of International Affairs "Australian Outlook"

New revelations have emerged at a blistering pace in the Congressional impeachment inquiry.  Trump is unlikely to be removed from office but will emerge with significant political damage.

It has now been nearly three months since a CIA whistle-blower wrote to Congressional leaders to report his concerns over a phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.  In those three months, almost all of the evidence that the whistle-blower cited has been corroborated by other sources.

It now appears undeniable that Trump and several of his hand-picked agents sought to extort personal political favours from Ukraine. Foremost among them are “personal lawyer” Rudy Giuliani and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.  Their leverage, among other things, was American military aid which Kiev needed to defend itself against Russian aggression.

Soon, Democrats in Congress will stop their private information-gathering sessions and will hold a series of public hearings designed to lay out and dramatize the story for the American public.  What happens next will play out along two tracks.  The first will be the impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives and the subsequent trial in the Senate.  The second is the broader story of how impeachment impacts public opinion and Trump’s chances in the 2020 election.

It would be foolish to make ironclad predictions about the Senate trial, but it appears extremely unlikely that Trump will be removed from office.  A Senate decision to remove Trump would require some 20 Republicans to vote in favour of conviction, and the political winds would have to change substantially to reach that number.  Many Republican senators feel no great affection for Trump.  However, the GOP bloc in the Senate will remain tied to Trump for as long as he enjoys the fanatical support of the Republican base, who they rely on for their own political survival.  And while polls suggest some Republican voters are deserting the president over his recent behaviour, there is no sign of a full-scale rout.

The more interesting question is how the politics of the impeachment inquiry will play out over the next year and influence the 2020 election.  Until the whistle-blower report revealed Trump’s behaviour towards Ukraine, the settled consensus in American politics was that impeachment would harm Democrats and help Trump.  The polls showed that years of drip-drip revelations from the Mueller inquiry had failed to convince the public that impeachment was necessary, and Democrats risked looking fanatical and petty if they pursued it.

The Ukraine matter has moved us into a new dynamic.  Polls now show majority support – and rising – for impeachment and, in some cases, even for conviction and removal from office.  Whereas the Mueller inquiry could always be portrayed as an attempt by the media and the left to relitigate the 2016 election, the Ukraine scandal is based on clear and understandable misconduct by the president while in office.  And while Mueller conducted his inquiry slowly and behind closed doors, leading his final report to appear as an anti-climax, the impeachment hearings will progress quickly and publicly.

As the public hears more of the story, it hence poses significant political risks not just for Trump but for the Senate Republicans who will eventually likely vote against his conviction.  There has been no clearer sign of the danger posed to Republicans than the ineptness of their response so far.  Trump and his allies have launched a ferocious attack on the impeachment process, characterizing it as illegitimate and a partisan witch hunt.  Yet they have found little to say to address the actual substance of the allegations against Trump. Instead, they have alternated between flatly denying the facts or angrily denying that the facts show that Trump has done anything wrong.

The latter approach reached its nadir when Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney claimed that Trump’s attempt to extort political favours from the Ukrainians was just a normal part of foreign policy and that his critics should “get over it”.  Such a cock-eyed defence – which Mulvaney was forced to retract soon after – shows the difficulty that Republicans will have justifying Trump’s behaviour going forward.

Political damage to himself and his party, rather than removal from office, is likely to be the chief danger Trump faces from the impeachment process going forward.  Trump has never polled as well as one would expect a president to in a strong economy. The corruption and scandals that have dogged his administration from the beginning are a key reason for this.  The Ukraine scandal will further depress his appeal and risks damaging him with the independent voters he needs to win re-election in 2020.

Several caveats are in order, however.  A year is a long time in politics and an eternity in Trump’s America.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, Trump is not actually very good at changing the subject to distract from his troubles – he is too obsessed with proving his tormenters wrong that he cannot help but constantly talk about and return to his past scandals.  But the president is also so unpredictable – especially when under pressure – that there is little telling what he might do between now and November 2020 to alter the political dynamic again.

The impeachment inquiry is also sure to increase polarization in American politics and to raise the perceived stakes in the 2020 election.  Many conservatives view the Ukraine inquiry as just the latest illegitimate attempt by the media and the left to put Trump – and by extension, themselves – back under the thumb of a political elite which disdains them.  Violence in the streets and further unconstitutional abuses of power by the administration – including challenging the validity of the election result – cannot be ruled out.  2020 will start with impeachment; what it will end with is anyone’s guess.

Andy Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States based at Leiden University in The Netherlands.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.