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Impeachment Is About to Get Tough. For Democrats.

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On an almost entirely party-line vote, the House of Representatives on Thursday adopted procedures for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. As Congress scholar Josh Huder argues (see also Sarah Binder), the resolution is meant to properly organize the Democrats’ approach — in particular, by putting their most camera-friendly committee, Select Intelligence, in the spotlight for the public phase of the process.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had no constitutional obligation to hold this vote, and a recent court ruling confirmed the House’s position that it wasn’t legally necessary in the Democrats’ fight against the president’s stonewalling either. Binder points out that the vote responds to Republican talking points about openness, but openness would have happened with public hearings anyway, and at any rate procedural complaints are rarely convincing. Republicans employ them only because the substantive case in Trump’s defense is difficult on the merits and even more difficult because he tends to undercut whatever his allies say. 

What Pelosi did not get was bipartisan buy-in. No Republicans voted for the resolution (although Michigan’s Justin Amash, an independent who left the party in large part over Trump’s behavior and supported the measure, certainly counts when it comes to assessing Republican unity). However, Democrats were also almost entirely united, with only two members from Trump-friendly districts voting no.

Intelligence hearings can now be expected in mid-November or so, after another week of closed-door hearings, perhaps featuring former National Security Advisor John Bolton. So far, and in striking contrast to public hearings earlier this year, Democrats have done an excellent job of milking these proceedings for favorable coverage — that is, favorable for impeachment. The witnesses’ opening statements have generated stories damaging to Trump, and tidbits of information confirming or expanding the Ukraine story have leaked after the hearings.

Frustrated Republicans have been unable to effectively counter the spin; indeed, at times Republicans who have been inside the room have echoed Democrats in describing the testimony. Of course, there has been at least a partial breakdown in White House resistance to any testimony at all, and it’s a lot easier for the House to use hearings effectively when the witnesses show up. This, in itself, is a sign of how weak Trump has become. 

Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff’s next challenge will be to maintain message control during the public hearings. Helping him will be a new format, with committee counsel (and minority counsel) leading off the questioning. Schiff’s committee also works relatively well for Democrats because it is small — there’s a shorter parade of members taking their five minutes to grandstand — and because at least one of the nine Republicans on the panel, retiring Texan Will Hurd, has taken the president’s actions seriously and will probably ask serious questions. The Democrats will also benefit by knowing what best to ask witnesses who’ve already testified in confidential sessions. 

But Pelosi, Schiff, Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler and the rest of the Democrats still have serious questions to answer, especially once the Intelligence Committee hearings are done and that committee and several others forward their suggestions and evidence to Judiciary, which will write the articles of impeachment. How quickly will they move to a final vote? What exactly will articles of impeachment look like? Will there be an obstruction-of-justice article based on the Mueller report? An article about emoluments and other conflicts of interest? One on other abuses of power? And if impeachment does go beyond the Ukraine case, will Judiciary hold a second set of hearings?

Perhaps the most difficult question for Pelosi and the Democrats is whether they see a realistic chance of actually removing the president. In the event it’s not possible to win the two-thirds supermajority needed to convict and remove Trump, is it still important to maximize the Senate vote to remove? A strategy to maximize the Senate vote count would be very different from one aimed at helping Democrats in November 2020. Yet there’s really no way to know how solid Trump’s support among Senate Republicans might turn out to be. 

Some impatient Democrats spent much of the past year attacking how Pelosi was handling impeachment. The Speaker understands, however, that sometimes she has to take the blame so that all members of her caucus can thrive. She’s reached this point with a unified party, and my guess is she’ll also handle the next stages deftly. Trump may think she’s just another witch, but that underestimates just how formidable an adversary she may be.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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