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Gaming Out Political Impacts of Impeachment Probe

U.S. Capitol Police officers stand near a secure area during closed-door interviews as House Democrats proceed with the impeachment investigation of President Trump in Washington, Oct. 3, 2019.

The Democratic-led impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives is expanding, but its fate in Congress and national political impact remain far from certain. VOA spoke with several legal and political commentators about how the high-stakes process is developing, its likelihood of removing the president from office, and impact on the 2020 national elections.

— Thomas Schwartz is a professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt University.

— William Galston is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution Governance Studies Program.

— Paul Schiff Berman is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School.

Question: How serious are the allegations in the impeachment case against the president?

Schwartz: "Well, I think that they're serious in the sense that the key issue here of actually asking a foreign leader to provide information on a political opponent, I think, is something that defies a lot of the norms of American politics. And I think also, because of the previous Russian investigation and other things seems to confirm a pattern in President Trump's behavior. And so I think it's very serious.

That being said, I'm not sure. I think the real question will be whether it rises to the level of an impeachable offense. And I think that's going to be — it might be helpful there in the investigation, if they can find the pattern of this type of behavior in his other interactions with foreign leaders."

Berman: "These are extraordinarily serious allegations. I'm not sure there's ever been a time in our history where we've had a president who has conducted foreign policy for his own personal political gain. The conversation that he had with the Ukrainian president has no element of actual public policy or actually doing the nation's business.

The entire purpose and content of the call as released by the White House is only to further the President's personal political efforts to hurt one of his political opponents. And that's an abuse of power and authority that goes beyond anything I think we've ever seen.”

Q: Is the president likely to be impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate?

Berman: "The Constitution allows the president to be impeached for certain crimes, and also what is referred to as high crimes and misdemeanors. … But any abuse of power or abuse of the power of the office, could count as an impeachable offense. It's not really defined in the Constitution.

And so therefore, it's really a judgment call and a matter of politics, whether the House in the first instance, and the Senate, in the second instance, thinks that there is sufficient evidence that the president abused his power such that removal is the appropriate remedy.”

Schwartz: "I think the odds are very long to put it mildly. ... What would have to happen would be real cracks, a mountain of evidence, perhaps the president also provides something in addition [to the current allegations].

It would be pretty phenomenal, because you're not just talking about a majority of the senate voting to convict him — majority of the Senate voted to convict Bill Clinton, but they didn't hit two-thirds. So two-thirds is really the phenomenal, the very large number you need to convict in the Senate."

Galston: "There's already evidence in the survey research that the members of the Republican Party at the grassroots level, as well as in Congress, are swinging even more firmly in support of President Trump. There is almost no support among voters who, who identify themselves as Republican for impeaching and removing the president from office. And the level of his strong support has risen very significantly in recent days … .

Based on what we know right now, I'd say that the Democrats' chances of being able to remove the president from office through this process are at most 5%."

Q: How do you expect the president's allies will defend him in the impeachment probe?

Schwartz: "Well, I think a lot of that will be that he's done nothing wrong, that he's trying to root out corruption, there'll be a lot of emphasis on the idea that he was trying to find out information about the Washington swamp in the sense of what the Bidens were up to in the Ukraine. There will be a lot of 'what aboutism' as it's said, basically pointing out things that the Democrats have done in the past that were similar to what Trump has done."

Galston: "Republicans have to be very careful not to be seen as defending the indefensible. And if they take the position of denying that the president did anything wrong, I think that they're going to lose ground with the American people. If they retreat to a second line of defense, and argue that although the president did something he shouldn't, it doesn't warrant impeaching and removing him, I think they may have a better case to argue.”

Q: How will the move to impeach the president play politically in the 2020 election?

Schwartz: "I think it's going to become the central issue. I really see, unless something else emerges, like a recession or something similar in domestic politics, I think this probably will be the central issue. And I think it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Because in a way, President Trump, I think, would be better off if the economy was the central issue right now, because it's so strong. If he is the central issue, and given the polling on him, it may be harder for him to win those very contested little Midwestern states.

But I do think I think impeachment will be the central issue, and probably will be the issue that everyone is talking about in all the Senate and House races as well."

Galston: "The Republicans, of course, have to think not only about re-electing the president in 2020, but also preserving their majority in the Senate, which is very, very important for them for all sorts of reasons. And there are four Republican senators who are up for reelection in states that President Trump either carried very narrowly in 2016, or lost outright. And these senators have to think very, very hard about what they're going to say what they're going to do, and what impression they're going to leave in the minds of their state electorates."