The Beginning of the Beginning: Impeachment in the Air

by Ali Minai

Sometimes, history moves faster than thought. Something like that is happening in the United States in these early days of fall. Though the season is taking longer than normal to turn, the political season has changed more quickly than anyone expected. The opinions of last week – such as the long article I had written for 3QD on the prospects of Donald Trump and the Democrats in 2020 – have suddenly become irrelevant, and I find myself writing this wholly surprising piece on the possible impeachment of Donald Trump. As these lines are being written, 223 Democrats and one Independent in the US House of Representatives – a clear majority – have announced on the record that they support opening an impeachment process against the President. That number was 120 at the beginning of September, and below hundred just a couple of months ago. We are at a hinge moment in the Trump presidency and in American history.

In critical situations with severely limited options, timing is almost always critical. If a fearsome beast is charging to attack you and you have a single bullet in your gun, when you fire that bullet is as important as whether you aim right. If you fire too soon, the bullet falls to the ground ineffectually and you are at the mercy of the beast, and if you hold your fire too long, the beast will already be upon you.  Nancy Pelosi, expert huntress that she is, seems to have got her timing on impeachment exactly right.

The Democratic base has wanted to impeach Donald Trump virtually since the minute he was elected. That fervor persisted as the so-called “Resistance” grew in the wake of the Muslim Ban and other inhumane, ill-advised, and outright cruel Trump Administration policies. However, while the intensity of this fire grew every day, it did not spread beyond the base, and all those who wished to check Trump’s reckless administration came to see winning back the House of Representatives for the Democrats in 2018 as the primary goal. Fed by this passion, the Democrats duly captured the House, decimating the Republicans in cities and suburbs from Wisconsin to Texas. After eight years in the minority, the Democrats were back in charge.

But, as is always the case with the broad Democratic coalition, the new majority ranged from extremely liberal members such as Rep. Maxine Waters and the new liberal icon, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to more conservative members from normally Republican-leaning districts. While the Resistance might have wanted to impeach and arrest Trump the day after the new Congress took office, this desire was far less widespread in the Democratic caucus as a whole. Nancy Pelosi, in her second stint as Madam Speaker, had the difficult task of keeping all members under control. In spite of her unique skills, the months since January 2019 showed how difficult this task was. Through the end of the Mueller investigation, the distortion of its conclusions by Attorney General William Barr, the images of children in cages, Republican “thoughts and prayers” on one mass shooting after another – through all these outrages, Speaker Pelosi resolutely dismissed all talk of impeachment as too divisive. Was this strategy or expediency? Or – as some began to say sotto vocepolitical cowardice? In desperation, Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee even opened up a make-believe “impeachment investigation” to mollify the Democratic base, but few were fooled – especially as this investigation ran up repeatedly against Republican stonewalling and recalcitrant witnesses.

The second week of September closed like most other recent weeks – with fresh tidbits of scandal and corruption from the Trump administration – enough to keep Rachel and the Chrises supplied with material on MSNBC, and to keep Tucker, Sean and Laura on Fox fed with their usual diet of offal and entrails. A week earlier, the Inspector General of National Intelligence, Michael Atkinson, had reported to Rep. Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the existence of a mysterious whistleblower complaint that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Joseph Maguire, had decided not to forward to Congress as required by law. Various House committee chairs had immediately announced investigations, adding to the already voluminous body of such investigations on Capitol Hill. But things escalated over the weekend, as reports began to swirl that the whistleblower complaint involved the President himself, and that the Department of Justice might have been behind withholding it from Congress. IG Atkinson met with the House Intelligence Committee in-camera and reported that he did not have permission to share the whistleblower complaint with Congress, but had determined that the complaint was “credible and urgent” – the standard for action.

Soon, it was reported that the complaint involved a phone call between President Trump and President Volodymir Zelinskiy of Ukraine on July 25, where Trump had possibly linked the provision of military aid to Ukraine with obtaining Zelinskiy’s help in digging up unwarranted dirt on former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had consulted for a Ukrainian organization in 2016. President Trump’s own clarifications on TV only appeared to confirm this damning speculation. As the certainty of reporting grew, so did the number of Democrats clamoring for the President’s impeachment. Nancy Pelosi gave the DNI until Thursday, September 26 to produce the complaint and let the suspense grow as almost every hour brought more Democrats into the impeachment fold. Then, on September 24, with a clear majority of House Democrats behind her, Speaker Pelosi announced the official launch of an impeachment inquiry. And that is when the world changed.

Since that fateful day, the Trump White House has been in full panic mode. The day after the Speaker’s announcement, the White House – amazingly – released a report of the July 25 phone call, clearly showing the President implying a quid pro quo and officially confirming what Trump had already implied before: The President of the United States had shaken down an important ally by linking the provision of critical military aid to the investigation of his political rival. On the evening of September 25 – the day before the DNI himself was slated to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in public – the complete whistleblower complaint and parts of the IG’s investigation verifying its contents were declassified and made available to selected members of Congress. Next morning, an hour before the DNI’s testimony, the complaint was released to the public, and everyone discovered that the damning phone call had allegedly been followed up by a massive coverup involving multiple White House staffers. Very importantly, the complaint laid out a complete roadmap for investigating the conspiracy, and every day since then has brought new information to light – a trend that, no doubt, will continue to grow as more and more White House aides in legal jeopardy begin to leak information.

Before considering what the future might bring, it is worthwhile to look at Nancy Pelosi’s masterful handling of the whole impeachment process. By resisting it for so long – even at severe cost to her own popularity – she convinced the public at large that she was not gunning for Trump’s impeachment. By emphasizing repeatedly that she opposed partisan impeachment because it would tear the country apart, she strengthened her credentials as the wise adult in the room and ensured that when she did come to impeachment, it would be seen as being more in sorrow than in anger. By holding the line in the face of pressure from the most liberal Democrats, she ensured the loyalty of the more moderate and conservative members of her caucus. And by remaining steadfast much longer than anyone thought possible, she showed everyone – her caucus, Donald Trump, and the American people – who was boss. Knowing that Trump and his propaganda machine had had two and a half years to delegitimize the Mueller probe, she resisted the temptation of using its discounted and diluted conclusions to go for impeachment. She knew she had only one shot, and she held it until the perfect moment.

And when that opportunity came, she was more than ready. Some had speculated even before all this that Pelosi was holding off on impeachment because she “knew” that bigger things were coming. That is possible, but not necessarily true. It is likelier that she relied simply on her understanding of Trump’s character – his inherently self-destructive nature and his penchant for corruption. And her most masterful stroke came at the end, when she announced the impeachment inquiry the day before the official report on the phone call was released. By doing so, she ensured that the decision would stand on its own, and not be held hostage to the inevitable analysis of the report and the complaint by pundits and White House propagandists. By the time the details came out, the process was already underway: Every new piece of information from here on out will simply be evidence, not a basis for argument and analysis. This speed and this timing is what has Trump defenders stunned. In the last three years, they had constructed a narrative of feckless, ineffectual Democrats who dithered around and could not get their act together. And then, in the span of three days, the act came together and there was nothing to stop it. As always in such situations, the Trump camp was blindsided because they had bought their own spin. They came to believe that their opponents would always dither and could always be divided. Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi planned and waited….

There is still a long way to go on impeachment. We are only at the beginning of the beginning. Once they catch their breath, Trump’s warriors will return to the field with new weapons. But they have a fatal liability: Trump and his self-destructive character. The whistleblower complaint and the official impeachment inquiry have also changed a few fundamental things. The complaint identifies explicit actions and implicates specific people, who will now have to testify or face criminal charges. Unlike ordinary Congressional hearings, impeachment hearings will be much harder to stonewall because: a) The public will be paying much more attention; b) Each obstruction carried out in full public view will potentially add to the articles of impeachment and make defense more difficult; c) The individuals identified will release even more incriminating information to save their own skins; and d) There will be a snowball effect where every Trump scandal – small or large – will attach itself to the core accusations until even recalcitrant Republicans have no choice but to go along. Once started, a process such as impeachment develops its own logic and rapidly creates positive feedback loops that cause exponential growth.

Polls are already showing public support for impeachment almost doubling in a week to a majority of Americans. Anecdotal reports from Trump supporters are beginning to show a turning away. Even a few Republican politicians in safe situations are starting to speak up. At least one serving Republican member of Congress has vaguely indicated some support for the impeachment inquiry. In a small but significant way, the dam is showing some cracks, and it is worth remembering that the dam was only 40 percent high to begin with. If things get a little worse, it is quite conceivable that Republican politicians will run away from Trump in droves. A few days ago, an anonymous Republican consultant was quoted as saying that, if the Senate ballot were held anonymously, 30 Republican senators would vote against Trump on impeachment – more than enough to convict and remove him. Recently retired Republican senator Jeff Flake, upon hearing this, said that, in fact, the number would probably be 35.

Something seems to have broken in Trumplandia this week. Soon, what scarcely seemed possible could look all but inevitable. And the best part is that many of those who made the fundamental corruption of Trumpism possible look likely to get enmeshed in the scandal and go down with their captain.

Of course, all this is just speculation, and could well turn out to be wishful thinking. Indeed, there seems to be a slight uptick in Trump’s popularity since impeachment talk intensified. But on this 29th day of September in the year 2019 of the Christian Era, it looks conceivable that, even if he is not removed from office, things will go worse for Trump than his opponents ever imagined possible two weeks ago. Democracy in America may yet be rescued by an extremely courageous, anonymous civil servant who saw something and said something.