Trump, Pelosi, and the ‘fog of politics,’ impeachment edition

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 25, 2019, in New York.

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In politics, as in war, the fog can get so thick that it’s hard to see what’s really happening. 

The government whistleblower complaint released Thursday contains, on its face, some of the most serious allegations yet against President Donald Trump. It charges Mr. Trump used his office for “personal gain” when he asked the Ukrainian president in a July phone call for help investigating former Vice President Joe Biden. The complaint also alleges senior White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of the call.

Why We Wrote This

Whose interpretations will hold sway in the Trump impeachment inquiry? Getting anyone to change their minds either way will be difficult amid thickets of allegations and counter-allegations.

Mr. Trump denies the accusations.

On both sides, the “fog” is taking different shapes. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s creating the impression that a major rubicon has been crossed – as signaled by her announcement earlier this week of an “official impeachment inquiry.” Yet the reality is, the House Judiciary Committee has already been conducting an impeachment inquiry into various aspects of Mr. Trump’s conduct. And there’s no guarantee that the House will ever take a vote on impeachment.

Mr. Trump’s fog machine is a public persona that can capture attention and spin heads. But despite calling the charges a “witch hunt,” he could actually be facing the greatest threat of his political career.

In politics, as in war, the fog can get so thick that it’s hard to see what’s really happening. 

The government whistleblower complaint released Thursday contains, on its face, some of the most serious allegations yet against President Donald Trump. It charges Mr. Trump used his office for “personal gain” when he asked the Ukrainian president in a July phone call for help investigating former Vice President Joe Biden. The complaint also alleges senior White House officials tried to “lock down” all records of the call, a sign they “understood the gravity of what had transpired.”

Mr. Trump denies the accusations.

Why We Wrote This

Whose interpretations will hold sway in the Trump impeachment inquiry? Getting anyone to change their minds either way will be difficult amid thickets of allegations and counter-allegations.

On both sides, the “fog” is taking different shapes. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it’s creating the impression that a major rubicon has been crossed – as signaled by her announcement earlier this week of an “official impeachment inquiry.” Yet the reality is, the House Judiciary Committee has already been conducting an impeachment inquiry into various aspects of Mr. Trump’s conduct. Five other committees are also investigating the president. And there’s no guarantee that the House will ever take a vote on impeachment.

Mr. Trump’s fog machine is a public persona that can capture attention and spin heads. But despite calling the charges a “witch hunt,” he could actually be facing the greatest threat of his political career.

“Pelosi is working strategically – mollifying the progressives but not hanging her moderates out to dry in a way that will threaten her majority in 2020,” says Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont.

“Trump doesn’t think in a grand strategic way,” Mr. Dickinson continues. “He’s winging it. He’s a counter-puncher, and this is an opportunity to counter punch.” 

One of Mr. Trump’s favorite techniques is deflection, and on Ms. Pelosi’s latest impeachment move, the president and his defenders are claiming that House Democrats haven’t followed the proper procedure. With President Bill Clinton, impeachment proceedings were launched with a vote by the full House, which didn’t happen with Mr. Trump. 

The reality is that the U.S. Constitution does not lay out a specific procedure for impeachment – just that a majority of House members are needed for the final vote to impeach. Removal from office would only come after a trial in the Senate, with a two-thirds vote required to convict. 

“There is no right procedure,” says Michael Gerhardt, an expert on impeachment and a visiting law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. When Mr. Trump and his defenders say the Democrats aren’t following proper procedure, “it sows the seeds of confusion and maybe distrust of the legitimacy of what the Democrats are doing. That’s always been his modus operandi.”

At the same time, just because most House Democrats now favor an impeachment inquiry, that doesn’t mean they’d all vote to impeach. In recent months, polls have shown public support for impeachment hovering in the high 30% to low 40% range. For the House to impeach, that number likely needs to be higher. And getting enough Senate Republicans to vote for conviction would require a wholesale shift in public thought against the president. 

Thus, the Democrats are working hard to portray Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine as his biggest scandal. Congressional testimony by the whistle-blower and his sources would certainly grab public attention.

Moving U.S. public opinion may require “material facts that link the principal with the given scandal,” as happened in Brazil two years ago, says pollster Clifford Young, president of U.S. Ipsos Public Affairs. “Could the whistleblower complaint be that? It could, depending on how people assess the credibility and truthfulness of that information.”

A YouGov poll released Sept. 24 suggests public opinion on impeachment is malleable. This hypothetical question – If Mr. Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the country’s officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, would you support or oppose impeachment? – had majority support. 

The battle to shape opinion over Trump-Biden-Ukraine has only begun. Some Democrats think they have the winning story – that Mr. Trump tried to collude with Ukraine to win the 2020 election. On Wednesday, the White House released a summary of Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, thus acknowledging its content – including that Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainian for “a favor.” 

The issue is interpretation. Trump defenders say that he was asking for help investigating the origins of the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And they say the whistleblower complaint released Thursday is all “second-hand information” – likening it to the unconfirmed Steele dossier that circulated at the start of the Trump-Russia investigation. 

So far, no Republican in either house of Congress has voiced support for impeachment. But a full-throated defense of Mr. Trump has yet to emerge. And some have expressed concerns. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told Politico Thursday that he is troubled by the whistleblower’s claim that White House officials tried to “lock down” records of the Zelenskiy call.

Whether American voters will delve into the whistleblower complaint and draw clear conclusions about the Trump presidency is an open question. Democrats are reportedly trying to narrow the impeachment inquiry to focus solely on Ukraine, believing it presents a clear example of presidential abuse of power and coverup. 

Regardless of how that effort to shape opinion plays out, Mr. Trump is expected to swing back as hard as ever – as he always has. Feeling under attack puts Mr. Trump right in his wheelhouse, says Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. And the power of the presidency combined with Mr. Trump’s performative skills could make him hard to outflank. 

“His foot is stapled to the accelerator,” says Ms. Blair. “And he’s not going to lift it.”

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