This is what an inflection point looks like. We’re four days into a concerted impeachment investigation by the House of Representatives and some of the core political dynamics that were propping up the administration are starting to buckle.
To review, one week ago we were living in a polarized world where a small, defiant Republican base drove political outcomes while a larger but disparate Democratic base failed to use its power to confront presidential lawlessness and recklessness. In this world, Democrats were divided over impeachment, fearing it would be a political loser when it inevitably resulted in acquittal at a senate trial by Republicans who had to protect Trump or risk the dissolution of their party. Perhaps things would change if Democrats could hold dramatic hearings, but the administration locked down evidence and testimony behind fake privileges unlikely to survive court challenges but certain to take months of adjudicating to resolve. So things plodded along.
Then came the whistleblower, followed by damning notes from a presidential phone conversation with the Ukranian leader, and Democrats were suddenly working with a stunning storyline of political corruption too serious to ignore. At-risk Democrats came out for impeachment, declaring that a president who trades national security for political gain needs to be stopped. Everything after that is a blur.
Look at what’s happened since mid-week. While the political world remains polarized and Republicans continue to prioritize political survival over the national interest, Democrats — by moving ahead with impeachment hearings — are now putting the national interest ahead of politics. Or, more accurately, they finally have the cover they need to align party politics with the national interest.
This has turned the politics of impeachment on its head. By speaking with one voice, Democrats are now driving the impeachment narrative. Yes, they remain a cumbersome and unruly caucus, arguing among themselves about strategy (should impeachment narrowly focus on Ukraine or more broadly indict Trump’s criminal activities and obstruction?) and tactics (does it make sense to cancel the upcoming two week congressional recess to underscore the urgency of events or permit members to go home and make the case for impeachment to their constituents?). But look at what’s happening to public opinion. In a matter of days, support for impeachment has skyrocketed. Democrats especially, taking their cues from congress, are unifying around their leaders. Independents will follow if the case can be presented to them clearly and soberly.
The united Democratic assault has upended Trump’s enablers and supporters. On the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes reprised his one-man circus act in an attempt to discredit the Ukraine story. But his antics were drowned out by the gravity of events. Fox News was caught scrambling to figure out how to cover the story, with its hosts sniping at each other and unwilling to reflexively defend Trump’s behavior. Notably, in the Senate there was silence. As of yesterday, the number of Republican senators telling reporters they hadn’t had time to read the whistleblower complaint, which runs a grand total nine double-spaced pages, was still in double digits. They must have exceedingly busy lives. Their silence should worry the White House, because it is a leading indicator of shifting political winds. When politicians sense something significant might be changing, the first thing they do is hold back while they assess the situation.
The White House will continue to disrupt and delay, and they may still be successful. But they will face greater challenges now as more facts come out, and the weaker Trump’s position becomes the more people in his orbit will look to protect themselves. The whistleblower report details culpability across the highest levels of the administration, with the latest turn of events involving revelations that the administration had a secret server (where have we heard this before?) to hide Trump’s problematic conversations with world leaders.
As more details emerge, public opinion will continue to turn, and pressure on Senate Republicans will intensify. Let’s be clear: the prospect of voting against the president in an impeachment trial would be a vote to end their political careers. It would be a vote to destroy the Republican Party as we know it. Nothing can change this political fundamental. But the potential weight of the allegations is so great and their reach so vast that it is not impossible to envision a time when absolving Trump is more toxic than defending him.
Democrats need to bring the country to that point through sober, focused hearings backed by their full authority to compel testimony and evidence. While there is no guarantee we will arrive there, we are now pointed in that direction. Last week, conventional wisdom said that Democrats would never impeach the president. Today, impeachment appears all but inevitable. It is time to recognize that conviction and removal from office, while at this moment unlikely, have now entered the realm of the possible.