Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be a liberal from San Francisco, California and a diehard political opponent of President Donald Trump, but she is also an institutionalist at heart. Having gone through the saga of former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s, she has never been a fan of using the procedure to push a president out the door. For Pelosi, Trump’s impeachment has always been a political risk for the Democratic Party, particularly for Democratic politicians in Trump districts who face a tough re-election campaign next year.
The dam, however, has broken. The latest scandal enveloping the White House, in which Trump purportedly pressured newly-elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the son of the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for corruption, was one scandal too many. Pelosi could no longer resist those in her caucus who were openly lobbying for a full impeachment investigation. So on Tuesday, standing solemnly in front of the microphone, she finally announced one. ‘The actions of the Trump presidency revealed the dishonourable fact of the President’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,’ the veteran lawmaker said.
The launch of a formal inquiry is no doubt a historic event. Before Pelosi’s announcement, there have only been three impeachment investigations in America’s 243-year history. The last time a president was impeached was 21 years ago, when Republicans put Clinton through the wringer after he lied under oath about an extramarital affair with a White House intern. Clinton was later acquitted by the Senate and served the remainder of his second term, but the entire process was detrimental to the country and very likely helped kick-off the stench of partisan warfare Americans have grown used to today. The inquiry against Trump will likely make the Clinton matter look mild in comparison.
Back then, the US had a president who was willing to compartmentalise the business of impeachment from the rest of his agenda. Clinton continued to press on and do the people’s work—partly because the world demanded it, and partly because separating the political from the professional was a clever way of making Republicans look like obsessive, heartless goons. Trump, however, has demonstrated no ability or interest to compartmentalise. Indeed, never has the US had a president as unconcerned about governing as Donald Trump, a man who never served in government before or is the furthest you can find from a policy wonk. For Trump, fighting back against impeachment will be the only thing he cares about for the next few months, with his re-election campaign coming in at a close second.
It’s difficult to see how the Democrats’ impeachment effort will result in anything more than an asterisk next to Trump’s name. The prospects of Republican lawmakers switching sides and supporting an early termination of Trump’s presidency are monumentally small—and Democrats like Nancy Pelosi know it. It’s one thing to impeach a president in the House, a body ruled by majoritarian fiat; it’s something else entirely to convict a president in the Senate, which requires the support of two-thirds of the chamber. Republicans have a majority, which means that 20 Republicans would need to vote with all of the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents for a conviction to pass. The chances of that happening are about as rare as getting struck by lightning twice on the same day.
Over the next months, the American people will turn on their televisions and see nothing but impeachment coverage. Trump will call Democrats traitors. Pelosi will call Republicans accessories to high crimes and misdemeanours. The 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be less about ideas rather than who is more anti-Trump in tone and substance. The political culture in America will become more toxic, if you can even imagine such a thing. And one suspects that more Americans will avoid politics altogether in order to preserve friendships and a healthy family life.