US Democrats’ explosive launch of an official impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump has set off a massive political battle, raising multiple questions about the process and its consequences for the Republican’s tempestuous presidency.
Will conservative Republicans turn on their man, or dig in their heels? Do Democrats relish the prospect of impeaching a president for only the third time in American history, or do they too face huge risk?
US experts are looking at what might be in store in the 400 days until the 2020 election, and who stands to benefit or suffer.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT ON TRUMP?
“Trump is right, an impeachment inquiry will mobilize his base,” Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at The Wilson Center, told AFP.
There is little doubt that the process will rile up his most loyal followers. His 2020 re-election campaign said as much Tuesday, warning that the impeachment effort “will only serve to embolden and energize President Trump’s supporters.”
But even if the bid to oust Trump stalls in the Republican-led Senate, as expected, there is presidential peril ahead.
The extremes on either side will not be swayed by the impeachment process, “but voters in the middle -- independents and more moderate voters -- could,” argued John Hudak, a senior fellow on governance at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
A high-profile congressional debate on the president’s alleged abuses of power could influence middle-of-the-road voters who supported Trump in 2016 -- voters he can ill afford to lose, given that his margin of victory was so slight.
“If I were the president, I would be worried about this,” Hudak said. “There’s a real risk here that this damages him with key constituencies.”
RISKS FOR DEMOCRATS TOO?
Democrats are by no means in the clear. Their liberal base has been clamouring for impeachment, but it could blow up in their faces, experts say.
“There’s the chance that Democrats will muff their opportunity to get articles of impeachment passed, demobilising the Democratic base,” said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Even if Trump is impeached in the House, a failure to convict by the Senate will appear to some as vindication for Trump and a sign that disgruntled Democrats were engaging in political theatre.
Christopher Arterton, professor emeritus of political management at George Washington University, said that without a smoking gun in the transcript of Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president, or in the whistle-blower complaint at the heart of new abuse-of-power allegations, those in the political centre “are likely to see this as an effort by Democrats to overturn the 2016 election.”
There is no “off ramp” for Democrats now, Arterton added. “If they don’t hold an impeachment vote, or they hold one and can’t pass it, Trump will claim total exoneration.”
Democrats also face a tight timeline. Should they not proceed quickly, the issue will hang over the entire presidential campaign.
WHAT WOULD IMPEACHMENT MEAN FOR WASHINGTON?
The short answer is, even more gridlock. Republicans and Democrats already have been at loggerheads over key issues like immigration, infrastructure and guns.
Arterton said he foresees “no real progress on festering problems” from now through the election.
Not only would a drawn out impeachment fight paralyze Washington, it would dominate much of the debate in the presidential campaign.
Democrats would be “consumed by impeachment and not able to talk about their agenda,” Arterton said.
A Senate trial would bring all other legislative action to a halt, potentially for months. Bill Clinton’s 1999 Senate trial after impeachment lasted more than five weeks.
The impeachment scenario “will dominate the news for the rest of this year,” predicts Wolfensberger.
But in 2020 it has the potential to be relegated to a “diversionary” partisan issue, Wolfensberger said, particularly if the Senate declines to convict Trump.