Editorial: House Democrats run the impeachment inquiry, but millions of Americans will decide Trump’s fate

Chicago Tribune Opinions 0 month ago

The day’s news brims with reports on the thrusts and parries of Wednesday’s U.S. House hearing, a possible prelude to the first removal from office of a sitting U.S. president. Weeks, perhaps months of public drama and decision-making have commenced. Our mission here is to frame this great debate — and to explain why whatever now happens across America will determine Congress’ verdict on President Donald Trump. To that end:

Donald Trump’s behavior led him directly — inevitably — to this start of public impeachment testimony. That statement is as close to bipartisan gospel as one is likely to find in Washington, D.C., these days.

To many Democrats, guided by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the impeachment inquiry is both an examination of Trump’s corrupt treatment of Ukraine and the culmination of their longstanding efforts to prove he was unfit from the start to govern the nation.

To many Republicans, and to Trump, impeachment is a high-profile setup orchestrated by frustrated Democrats who expected former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia would rid the country of a president they dislike.

In other words, impeachment for both sides is as much about Trump’s being president as it is about his conduct. He is impetuous and unorthodox, sometimes careless and uncivil. Critics see a reckless defier of laws and norms who must be held to account. Supporters see a feisty outsider who defies establishment elitists and incurs their wrath. House Democrats seem certain to file articles of impeachment. Senate Republicans seem just as certain to acquit, barring surprise disclosures of wrongdoing committed by the president.

Yet focusing on this abyss between Trump’s friends and foes in high places diminishes something more important: the interests of the American public. Either Americans will be drawn in to these historic proceedings and demand that a presidential election be overturned, or they will write them off as another episode of Trumpian theater and Democratic overreach. Public opinion will drive members of Congress to abandon or support Trump as the impeachment inquiry moves forward.

Everyone’s judgment on impeachment and removal should be reached according to the facts of the Ukraine incident and the words of the Constitution.

On July 25, one day after Mueller gave desultory testimony to Congress that ended previous talk of Trump’s impeachment, the president pressured Ukraine’s leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump meandered in his phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy but left the strong impression he wanted Ukraine to take actions that would benefit Trump’s political standing. House Democrats later fleshed out their accusations that Trump intended to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a Zelenskiy promise to launch corruption investigations, including a probe of businessman Hunter Biden’s activities in the country.

We said in September, when a rough transcript of the phone call was released, that Trump unarguably, and indefensibly, urged Zelenskiy to undercut Biden. If proven that Trump withheld military aid to an ally to emphasize his request, that’s a serious transgression. But can Americans be convinced any of Trump’s actions related to his dealings with Ukraine rise to the level of an abuse of power that warrants his expulsion from office? Or was this Trump being Trump in a realm the Constitution entrusts to him: diplomacy, with or without bullying.

As members of Congress wrestle with those questions, Americans by the millions will reach their own verdicts. In Washington, impeachment is a grave exercise in political oversight that requires, paradoxically, elected officials to put aside tribal allegiances for the good of the country. Across that country, the stakes are different but every bit as dramatic as whether Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors: whether to override the results of the 2016 election, less than a year before the 2020 election.

Like so often in his presidency, Trump’s rash behavior is central to the story. Detractors have an easy time ascribing nefarious motives to Trump’s actions toward Ukraine. Supporters have an easy time overlooking any offense because they knew they elected a bull to run the china shop.

On which side will public opinion now coalesce? Answer that question and you’ve declared whether Trump stays or goes.

Editorials reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board, as determined by the members of the board, the editorial page editor and the publisher.

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