The mother of all Trumpian battles

You should be careful what you wish for, goes the saying. You might actually get it. After months of goading Democrats to put up or shut up, Donald Trump finally provoked Democrats on Tuesday into launching an impeachment process to remove him. It is anybody’s guess whether Mr Trump has been tempting fate, or genuinely believes impeachment will help win him re-election next year. Now we will find out.

Nancy Pelosi’s motivations are easier to read. Having spent the last year resisting grassroots pressure to act, the House speaker reluctantly gave in to the clamour on Tuesday. When Ms Pelosi made the announcement, she looked like she was having her teeth pulled. Her view has always been that impeachment would only play into Mr Trump’s hands. But the alternative — a challenge to her leadership from the increasingly frustrated ranks of Democratic lawmakers — was worse.

History offers scant guide as to what will happen next. Only two US presidents have been impeached — Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868. Both were acquitted by the US Senate. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before he was formally impeached. The last case is by far the most relevant.

At the start of the Watergate hearings, the overwhelming majority of Republicans backed Nixon. His support held right up to the moment when the Supreme Court ordered the infamous Oval Office tapes to be released. Then the tide turned.

Mr Trump also begins the process with rock-solid partisan support and a US public that is lukewarm about impeachment. It is easy for Washington insiders to overestimate the degree to which the public is paying attention. But that can change quickly. Mr Trump’s visceral reactions to hour-by-hour developments will surely draw more eyeballs to the proceedings.

But why start impeachment now rather than when the Mueller report came out in April? For two reasons. First, Mr Trump’s alleged attempt to extort a foreign leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, took place while he was president. Although Robert Mueller spelt out examples of obstruction of justice since 2017, the meat of his report was about alleged Russian collusion before Mr Trump took office. Tellingly, Mr Trump withheld $391m of aid before asking Mr Zelenksy on July 25 to dig up dirt on Mr Trump’s likely opponent, Joe Biden. This was just a day after Mr Mueller’s low-key testimony to Congress. In one key respect, however, “Ukrainegate” and the Mueller report are closely linked: both involve Russia. America’s military aid is meant to help Ukraine’s defences against Russian encroachment in its east.

The second reason is that the alleged corruption behind “Ukrainegate” is far easier to grasp. If Mr Trump threatened to withhold aid to a pro-western power unless it played dirty to help him win re-election, that would break through to even the most attention-deficient swing voter. “No one is above the law,” said Ms Pelosi. Most Americans would also agree with that.

It is another matter whether Democrats can convince enough Americans that Mr Trump, like Nixon, is a crook. The Watergate hearings were televised live from one committee room. Ms Pelosi intends to split up the drafting of articles of impeachment between six House committees. That does not augur well for primetime clarity.

Ukrainegate was sparked by a whistleblower inside the intelligence agencies who knew the contents of Mr Trump’s call to Mr Zelensky. If the whistleblower gives public testimony, and his or her account is convincing, that could change the political climate. Mr Mueller’s much-awaited public testimony fell flat. The immediate fate of the US republic now at least partly hangs on the strength of the story the whistleblower can tell.

edward.luce@ft.com

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