Trump impeachment: Democrats failing?

This photo shows US President Donald Trump hosting a roundtable discussion with small business owners and members of his administration in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on 6 December, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP Photo)

Democrats are marching quickly toward the impeachment of United States (US) President Donald Trump and placing him on trial for abuse of power, bribery and obstruction.

They have laid out significant evidence that he illicitly pressured Ukraine to announce investigations into Democrats that could help him in the 2020 election.

That could see Trump formally charged in the Democrat-controlled House within weeks, making him only the third US president ever impeached.

But nearly two months of investigation and public hearings has not changed expectations that Republicans will stand by the US leader and ensure his acquittal at his Senate trial, expected in January. 

Despite the evidence, Democrats have collided with the immovable force of Trump's popularity with his core voter base, his committed support from conservative media and the wariness of Republican legislators to cross him.

The legal view

The testimony of four respected constitutional scholars to the Judiciary Committee Wednesday didn't significantly move the dial on whether Trump should be impeached. 

Three aligned with the Democrats said categorically that the president had committed impeachable crimes.

"The president's serious misconduct, including bribery, soliciting a personal favour from a foreign leader in exchange for his exercise of power and obstructing justice and Congress, are worse than the misconduct of any prior president," said Michael Gerhart.

But a fourth, Republican-aligned Jonathan Turley, said that while Trump may have crossed the line, Democrats had not fully proven it and were rushing the process.

Hardened voters

Michael Binder, a political scientist and faculty director of the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida, says sentiment has swung in the past few months towards impeachment. 

Political moderates "have gotten on board," he said – although it's hardly enough of a groundswell. Still only just around half of Americans support Trump being removed via impeachment.

In the 1973-74 Watergate scandal, he said most of the public was for impeachment by the time Republican senators delivered the message to Richard Nixon to resign or face conviction.

Today, Binder said, Trump's core voters, around 35 percent of the electorate, are unmoved by whatever evidence there is.

FiveThirtyEight, a political analysis group, said that a majority of respondents to a poll said their views had been affected by the hearings. 

"But in almost all cases they simply became more convinced of their original opinion," the group said.

Media divide

Binder says the process has failed to overcome a media divide that has Democrats getting their news from one set of sources – mainstream or left-leaning networks such as CNN and MSNBC – and Republicans following only outlets like conservative Fox News, a favourite of Trump.

In the Watergate era, he noted, there were fewer outlets, all relatively centrist and non-aligned. 

People may have had different views on impeachment or the Vietnam War, he said, "but you were all watching the same set of information."

Today, he said, people watching Fox News are "working with essentially different sets of facts" than CNN or NBC viewers. 

"It hardens your position and makes it hard for you to understand the other side," he said.

Witness stonewalling

Trump has hampered the Democrats' case by preventing the investigators from hearing from the witnesses who have the most direct knowledge of his Ukraine policy, people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. 

He has also refused to hand over records that would support Democrats' case.

Democrats say he is illegally obstructing a congressional investigation, but that hasn't prevented Republicans from arguing that their opponents lack the testimony they need to proceed.

"Impeachments have to be based on proof, not presumptions," Turley told Congress.

Democrats say they have the evidence they need, and are loath to fight over this issue in the courts, knowing it could take more than a year and ultimately go to the Supreme Court.

Effective Trump strategy

Trump's strategy in dealing with the impeachment challenge is combative, chaotic, ever-shifting, making use of clear falsehoods and character assassination. But it works to keep his voters, and his party, in line.

He regularly asserts to Republicans, especially those who are facing re-election next year, that he will hurt those who do not stand by him.

"Trump is really, really good at, once you turn on him, alienating you and minimising you, and reducing your impact," said Binder.

"Right now, the Senate leadership has no incentive to turn until the public does," he added.

"Until registered voting Republicans begin to turn, these sitting senators have zero incentive" to drop support for Trump. - AFP