Democrats Gird for Impeachment Fight Overtaking the 2020 Race

(Bloomberg) -- It’s a fight that President Donald Trump has been spoiling for, and one that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to give him.

And now, with the involvement of the Democratic front-runner Joe Biden, it’s a fight that could overtake the 2020 presidential campaign, no matter who becomes the Democratic nominee.

Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry on Tuesday. If it resulted in an impeachment vote, it would re-litigate the first three years of the Trump presidency. Such an action would also threaten to overshadow the campaigns of the Democrats hoping to run on health care, gun control and immigration.

Democrats Gird for Impeachment Fight Overtaking the 2020 Race

It would put every member of Congress — including freshmen Democrats from swing districts who have been most shy of impeachment — on record on an issue that will only excite partisan passions.

That could benefit Trump, who thrives on partisanship.

“It’s the craziest thing anybody has ever seen,” Trump said Tuesday. “We have the strongest country in the world, the best economy we’ve ever had. And she’s talking impeachment.

“But the good news is, the voters get it. This is why they say it’s good for the election. But you know what? It’s bad for the country,” he said.

As Trump often says, when he gets hit, he hits back. And he and his Republican allies wasted no time Tuesday starting the counterattack.

Even before Pelosi uttered the word “impeachment,” the Trump campaign was using the news to raise money. A fund-raising email asked supporters to join an “Official Impeachment Defense Task Force.” The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House fund-raising arm of the GOP, predicted that the impeachment inquiry will “cost the Democrats their majority in 2020.”

Later, Trump tweeted a pre-produced ad showing Democrat after Democrat calling for his impeachment — including Representative Al Green saying he was “concerned if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.” It ended with video of him saying at a rally in Florida that impeachment is the “only way to beat me.”

Sounds of people chanting “Four More Years!” accompany a screen that says, “While Democrats’ sole focus is fighting Trump, President Trump is fighting for you,” the same message that Trump used throughout the Russia-collusion investigation.

But where the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller looked into what happened in 2016, the Ukraine story is a preview of 2020, and with a new foil: Biden.

It could smear Biden with a murky story about his son’s business dealings overseas, just at a time when Elizabeth Warren is inching up behind him to a statistical tie in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Biden’s been campaigning mostly against Trump rather than his fellow Democrats, and this fight could elevate Biden as Trump’s chief antagonist.

Democrats Gird for Impeachment Fight Overtaking the 2020 Race

“I can take the political attacks,” Biden said Tuesday. “But if we allow a president to get away with shredding the United States Constitution, that will last forever.”

Still, Biden seemed to be a half-step more cautious than even Pelosi on impeachment. He mentioned it only once, and tentatively.

“Congress should demand the information it has a legal right to receive,” he said. “And if the president does not comply — if he continues to obstruct Congress and flout the law — Donald Trump will leave Congress no choice but to initiate impeachment.

“That would be a tragedy,” Biden added. “But a tragedy of the president’s own making.”

Democrats have come a long way from 2018, when Pelosi successfully urged congressional candidates to focus on issues like health care and taxes instead of Trump and impeachment.

Pete Buttigieg, campaigning in Iowa, said, “My message is: Yeah, he needs to be impeached, now let’s get you some health care.”

Tuesday’s action gives them little room to repeat that strategy in 2020.

“Democrats can’t beat President Trump on his policies or his stellar record of accomplishment, so they’re trying to turn a Joe Biden scandal into a Trump problem,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.

“The misguided Democrat impeachment strategy is meant to appease their rabid, extreme, leftist base, but will only serve to embolden and energize president Trump’s supporters and create a landslide victory for the president.”

As of last week, impeachment remained unpopular. A Politico poll showed 37% of Americans supported impeachment proceedings, with half opposing it. Democrats and Republicans are predictably polarized on the issue, with independents leaning against.

That, however, was before the Ukraine episode. The final straw for Pelosi were allegations that Trump may once again have courted a foreign leader to interfere in a presidential election.

In a telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25, Trump says he discussed anti-corruption efforts — including an investigation into the role played by Biden’s son Hunter in a Ukrainian natural gas company whose founder has been under investigation for tax evasion and money laundering.

Biden as vice president pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor general, but it was an effort backed by the European Union and other government entities. Further, the probe into Hunter Biden had been dormant for a year when Joe Biden got involved.

A first early test of the case for impeachment could come as soon as Wednesday. That’s when Trump says he’ll release the transcript of the call with Zelenskiy.

That transcript could show that Trump dangled the possibility of withholding American aid for Ukraine unless prosecutors there investigated Hunter Biden. It might also prove Trump’s contention that the phone call was “perfect” and appropriate.

Or it could be as unclear as the Mueller report, perpetuating a partisan standoff with no clear outcome.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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