The Democrats' toughest impeachment task: Persuasion
If you thought the transcript of President Donald Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would resolve anything, think again. Consider these two disparate reactions posted on the president's favorite social media platform.
"It amounts to a smoking gun against the president," tweeted CNN's Chris Cillizza. "Period." The Federalist's Sean Davis looked at the same set of words and concluded: "Democrats want to impeach Trump because he asked Ukraine's president to cooperate with a DOJ investigation of the role of Ukraine and Crowdstrike in foreign meddling in our 2016 elections."
Trump supporters view the transcript as wholly exculpatory while critics view it as damning and impeachment-worthy. We have seen this movie before with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. People looked at identical facts and came to radically different conclusions about Attorney General William Barr's summary — did it whitewash Trump's conduct or merely state the bottom line conclusions that a Trump-Russia conspiracy could not be proven without equivocation or innuendo? — and presidential obstruction of justice.
Partisanship and political opportunism surely explain much of this, but they are not the only explanation. If you begin with the premise Trump is operating with corrupt intent, the supporting material is always there. If you do not open with that assumption, alternate explanations for questionable Trump actions are possible. That's why so many of the reactions to various Trump scandals flow inexorably from one's pre-existing opinions about him.
Most House Democrats and many of their voters view the Ukraine call and the whistleblower's complaint through the prism of Trump's apparent willingness to accept foreign help in winning elections. There is little question that his behavior on these matters differs from how Mitt Romney or John McCain would have likely responded to a similar set of circumstances if they occupied the Oval Office. Given all this, Trump certainly put himself at unnecessary risk by getting into all these matters with Zelensky.
Is there another way to look at it? We know Trump believes foreign countries benefit from the United States without giving enough in return and he always talks about the importance of "reciprocity." It is entirely possible he also occupies the same headspace as many of his online defenders: He genuinely thinks the investigations against him are biased and unfair, that comparable or worse Democratic malfeasance is receiving insufficient scrutiny, and that his requests to Zelensky in context fall short of what he would consider a quid pro quo despite the power differential between them.
Trump could be wrong in every particular. Even if he is right about Hunter Biden's business dealings or Ukraine's usefulness in providing additional information about 2016 election meddling, his comments and Rudy Giuliani's role may indeed be inappropriate. But as Democrats investigating their likely 2020 election opponent should be able to see, not all desire to investigate a political rival is inherently corrupt.
In impeaching Trump, however, House Democrats don't necessarily have to prove corrupt intent for themselves. Most of them assume and earnestly believe that is Trump's motivation in this and many other matters. An impeachment inquiry would allow them to make that case without relying on measured or ambiguous reports from the likes of Mueller. But they will be viewed as less objective narrators than Mueller. Charges of political bias against Democratic lawmakers will be less farfetched than Trump attacks on the Russia special counsel (and even those had some impact).
Impeachment is broadly unpopular, especially with swing voters who helped Democrats win Congress in 2018 and who will likely decide the next presidential election. Democrats have to hope they can either do more to swing public opinion on this question than Mueller ever did or convince enough Senate Republicans not named Romney who are uncomfortable with Trump's behavior, without damaging Joe Biden or sucking up oxygen that would more profitably be absorbed by another possible Democratic nominee in the process.
The precedent Democrats will be looking at is the Watergate hearings, which materially depressed public support for Richard Nixon. But those hearings took place in a very different media environment and a less polarized political climate. And while Trump is not as popular, Bill Clinton is also a precedent: a party already convinced he was corrupt impeached on the basis of the first charges they could get to stick after coming up empty on others despite having a low probability of success in the Senate. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been reluctant to go down this road for precisely these reasons.)
Where Trump unambiguously has a problem is in separating his political interests from the national interest. These are easily conflated by anyone who sees their policies as being best for the country, but this president has a particularly Trump-centric way of looking at the world. This does speak to his fitness for office, though in a way that has an obvious electoral remedy given that impeachment will play out the same year he is supposed to be on the ballot. House Democrats will therefore try to persuade both voters and senators, a tall but not necessarily impossible task.
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