In a single extraordinary day, the calculations and conventional wisdom that have prevailed in Washington during the Age of Trump were thrown out the window. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for two years a voice of caution about the consequences of trying to remove President Donald Trump from office, announced Tuesday that the House of Representatives would begin a formal impeachment inquiry into whether he encouraged a foreign government to investigate his political rival.
Even the president's most fervent critics don't believe there's much chance that an impeachment vote in the House, if it happens, would remove Trump from the White House; that's a step that would require the assent of a two-thirds super-majority in the Republican-controlled Senate. But it almost certainly will transform the nation's politics in ways that are impossible to predict.
There are perils ahead, not only for the president but also for the Democrats who decided to pursue him – and for the Republicans who may be weighing whether to defend him.
History provides no reliable guide about the consequences ahead.
"The president must be held accountable," Pelosi said after a meeting of the House Democratic caucus. Standing in front of a phalanx of American flags, she spoke gravely and took few questions. She said Trump's acknowledged actions have "revealed the dishonorable fact of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security, and betrayal of the integrity of our elections."
As she finished speaking, Trump began tweeting.
"Such an important day at the United Nations, so much work and so much success, and the Democrats purposely had to ruin and demean it with more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage," he wrote. "So bad for our Country!"
Earlier, he had dismissed news of Pelosi's decision as though he were brushing lint off his blue suit. “If she does that, they all say that’s a positive for me in the election,” he said. “You could also say who needs it, it’s bad for the county.”
From impossible to inevitable
In the spring, impeachment looked all but impossible when special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election failed to galvanize support for the idea. But it became all but inevitable after reports emerged last week of a separate allegation involving foreign involvement in American politics.
This time, Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani acknowledged that they encouraged the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter. During that time, Trump ordered a delay in sending military aid to Ukraine, although he said there was no quid pro quo involved.
A whistleblower, not publicly identified, filed a complaint with the intelligence community's inspector general, who ruled that it was credible and urgent. With that, the law says it should be sent to Congress. The administration refused to do that, another point of confrontation. Pelosi set a deadline of Thursday to deliver it.
Trump promised to release on Wednesday a complete transcript of his phone conversation July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Ukraine story almost immediately became a flashpoint in a way the Russia story never did. For one thing, it involved a sitting president, not a presidential candidate. For another, Trump was directly involved; it wasn't a case of a shadowy meeting at Trump Tower involving his son and campaign aides. And it is easy to understand, unlike the complicated tales of Moscow's intrigue.
All that prompted seven freshmen members of Congress from swing districts – the "majority makers" Pelosi has been determined to protect – to co-write an op-ed Tuesday calling the offenses impeachable, if true.
Other voices spoke up for an impeachment inquiry for the first time, among them Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon. So did Biden, the leading contender to challenge Trump in next year's election.
He called impeachment the only remedy if the president refuses to give Congress the whistleblower's complaint and other information it is entitled to have. "That would be a tragedy," he said, "but a tragedy of his own making."
The floodgates opened Tuesday: A stream of other House Democrats issued tweets and emails and announcements endorsing an impeachment inquiry. By the end of the day, two-thirds of the 235 House Democrats were officially on board.
Complicated politics of impeachment
Here's one irony: Some of the Democrats voting to impeach Trump are more likely to be putting their own jobs at risk than his, particularly the 31 House Democrats who represent districts that were carried by Trump in 2016.
Here's another irony: You could say the same about some of the Republicans who have formed a solid wall of support for Trump, at least so far. The GOP members of Congress who have ventured even modest concern about Trump's behavior in the Ukraine matter, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. A firestorm that sways public opinion against the president, if that happens, would cost them as well.
The politics of impeachment are too complicated to make confident predictions about what will follow. Republicans took a bath after President Richard Nixon was impeached in 1974; he resigned in the face of likely conviction. But Democrats gained congressional seats in 1998 amid the impeachment of Bill Clinton, who survived a Senate vote.
The safest prediction is this: Tuesday, things changed – for the president, for his critics, for his defenders. For the country.