Inflection Point

We have reached an inflection point in the struggle between confrontation and accountability.

Last Saturday, I suggested that the Ukraine story would break the logjam on impeachment if the substance of the scandal overpowered a set of political dynamics which for the better part of this year have led congressional Democratic leadership to hold the line against intense and repeated calls from their base to impeach.

As of this afternoon, all those dynamics (which you can read about here) remain in place. Save for one.

  • Public opinion is still deeply divided, with Republicans beholden to Trump and the rest of the country expressing everything from mild to passionate disapproval.
  • The Republican base remains small and defiant.
  • The Democratic base remains large but diverse and difficult to hold together.
  • Elected Republicans remain unwilling to confront Trump.
  • The institutional prerogatives of Congress remain weakened by partisan ties between congressional Republicans and the White House.
  • Democrats still worry about the political fallout if they move ahead with impeachment and senate Republicans do not convict.
  • Senate Republicans still face the destruction of their party if they ever seriously entertained turning against Trump.
  • Democrats still believe the best way to build support for impeachment is through public exposure to the facts.

And yet . . . This afternoon Nancy Pelosi announced support for an impeachment inquiry, something that she has worked hard to prevent since she assumed the Speaker’s gavel. What changed?

For the first time, House Democrats have put aside the calculation that moving ahead with impeachment will endanger vulnerable members from competitive seats, and that opened the floodgates. The first indication that something had shifted came last night in a Washington Post editorial drafted by seven freshmen Democrats with military experience, all from marginal districts, urgently imploring Democrats to use whatever power is at their disposal – including impeachment – to investigate what they described as a clear and present danger to American security. In their words:

The president of the United States may have used his position to pressure a foreign country into investigating a political opponent, and he sought to use U.S. taxpayer dollars as leverage to do it. He allegedly sought to use the very security assistance dollars appropriated by Congress to create stability in the world, to help root out corruption and to protect our national security interests, for his own personal gain. These allegations are stunning, both in the national security threat they pose and the potential corruption they represent.

By this morning, the dam had broken.

I speculated on Saturday about differences in the Ukraine story that could have formed the basis for what we’re seeing unfold. Unlike the Mueller investigation, it is about events taking place in real time. It is about events that pose an ongoing national security risk. It is about the actions of a president, not a candidate. There is documentation in the form of a whistleblower report that was considered credible and urgent by the Inspector General. There are Trump’s own self-implicating words. And there is an easy and compelling narrative available to Democrats that casts Donald Trump as a traitor to his country.

I have long felt that only two storylines would be strong and clear enough to cut through the fog and propel the impeachment process forward: Trump as traitor or Trump as mob boss (the latter being dependent on release of Trump’s financial information). I also believed that at some point along the way – either this year or early next year, perhaps once the courts finally slapped down fake claims to privilege – something would surface to bring us to this point. There is just too much corruption to hold it all back.

Because none of the other fundamentals have changed, it is difficult to know how things will play out. But with Democrats moving together in the same direction and speaking with clarity and urgency, you can start to see how the politics will change. It is incumbent for Democrats to get the evidence of this episode before the public, but with an impeachment investigation now unambiguously underway they finally have the chance to focus public attention. And as the evidence paints Trump as someone willing to illegally trade national security for partisan gain, let Republican senators explain to voters outside their base why they are willing to let him.