To impeach or not to impeach: Why Democrats changed their minds

Events of the past week proved that the Democrats can win with impeachment, even if they lose in the Senate.

Pelosi impeachment AP
Speaker Pelosi addresses reporters about her decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump at the Capitol in Washington, DC, September 26, 2019 [Scott Applewhite/AP]

The Democrats can win with impeachment.

They can win with impeachment even if they don’t win the second half of the process, the trial, in the US Senate.

On Monday, September 23, that seemed like a very iffy idea. The problem was this. The part of the process that the Democrats control is the first part, akin to an indictment. The presumption is that the public still believes in the idea – to some degree, even in politics – of innocent until proven guilty. Since a guilty verdict requires two-thirds of the Senate, which is under control of Republicans who have been extremely partisan and in nearly absolute lockstep in their party loyalty, a non-guilty verdict seemed absolutely guaranteed. A non-guilty result in the trial part would be expected to vindicate the president. Both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump appear to have believed that logic. That’s why Pelosi resisted impeachment and Trump’s attitude appeared to be “bring it on!”

On Tuesday, September 24, Pelosi suddenly and unexpectedly changed her position.

At that point, success for the Democrats seemed possible. But only if they were able to navigate a tricky, twisting, clever route. They would have to lay out the case against the president with such great clarity and undeniability in the process of producing the indictment that if Senate Republicans voted against it, it would be seen as strictly partisan politics. An even better trick would have been to draw out the impeachment investigation right up to November 2020, the election time, and never let it go to the Senate.

Hearings like those on the Mueller report and Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination did not bode well. The process, alternating five-minute segments (or the like) for the members on each side, and all the members using their minutes to grandstand, was constructed to end with fog and mud. Trump’s record at surviving accusations and investigations did not bode well. It seemed that whatever didn’t kill him – and nothing did – only made him stronger with his base and with the Republican Party where he had a level of support that was beyond all comprehension. To achieve success, Democrats would have to overcome that. It would require levels of creativity, focus, and discipline significantly higher than they have displayed so far.

It seemed at that point that a phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, was the main issue. Trump remained so confident that he not only promised to produce a “transcript” of that call by Thursday, he actually did so. There is a reason to doubt that it is complete and accurate. But he did release it.

On Thursday, September 26, Trump World cracked open.

Trump’s version of the phone call was self-damning.

There was also a mysterious whistle-blower complaint. It should have automatically gone to Congress. But it had been snatched up and hidden by the Justice Department. That, too, came out on Thursday. It turned out that the document had been sent to the people who were accused in the document – Trump and Attorney General William Barr – and they decided to bury it. That’s a level of self-dealing, cover-up, and corruption so obvious and clear that everyone gets it.

On Monday, impeachment looked like it would be an undisciplined stumble through a muddy swamp in a thick fog. By Thursday, it was as if the fog had lifted and a clear route above the mud was revealed. Those two pieces of paper have laid out the grounds for impeachment. They do more than that. They contain a witness list and say where the evidence is buried.

The first round of hearings was run by Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff showed that he had the discipline, focus, and the demeanour to do the job successfully.

Here, let us throw in two bits of utter speculation. The first is that Pelosi had seen the two documents before she changed her position. The second is that Trump’s screeches of “treason” aimed at the whistle-blower are a tell. Trump accuses others, loudly and often, of the things he himself has done.

At the beginning of the week, impeachment seemed like a march through an unmapped minefield. At the end of the week, no matter what happens in the Senate, it looks like it will be a success.