WASHINGTON - When considering what lies ahead in the impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump, a famous movie line comes to mind. “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
That line was uttered by legendary Hollywood actress Bette Davis in the 1950 film, “All About Eve.” But it would seem to fit the times when it comes to where the president and opposition Democrats are headed in the weeks to come.
Emotions and tensions are running high in Washington as the impeachment inquiry targeting Trump gains momentum. And many political experts believe this latest battle over the Trump presidency is likely to sharpen the longstanding political divide within the country just as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway in earnest.
Trump has appeared to be in battle mode in recent days as the prospect of impeachment looms. On Thursday, in front of reporters outside the White House, he openly urged Ukraine and China to start investigating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
As the President of the United States, I have an absolute right, perhaps even a duty, to investigate, or have investigated, CORRUPTION, and that would include asking, or suggesting, other Countries to help us out!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2019
It was a phone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25, however, that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry being pushed by congressional Democrats. In a summary of the call released by the president, Trump urged Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens, even though neither Trump nor his allies have produced any public evidence of wrongdoing.
Trump’s mood has grown increasingly combative in recent days as more details emerge about the call.
“People have said to me, how does he handle it?” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. “Because it is all a fraud, and because of that, and because I know that I am right and because I am doing a great job for the American people, I am very, very happy living the way I am living.”
Trump has also ramped up his attacks on the news media.
“Much of it is corrupt. You have corrupt media in this country and it truly is the enemy of the people,” he said.
Congressional Democrats remain focused on Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s leader and his appeal for help in trying to find political dirt on Democratic rival Joe Biden. For months, Biden has consistently beaten Trump in head-to-head matchups in polls.
Democrat Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has become the face of the impeachment inquiry and told reporters Wednesday that Democrats were determined to quickly move ahead with their inquiry.
“To try to effectively coerce a foreign leader that is completely dependent on our country for military, economic, diplomatic and other support to intervene in our election to help his campaign. It is hard to imagine a more corrupt course of conduct,” Schiff said.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and described the phone exchange as a “perfect call.”
But legal expert Paul Schiff Berman of the George Washington University Law School said the allegations are serious.
“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 is an abuse of power and authority that goes beyond anything I think we have ever seen,” Schiff Berman told VOA.
As the House moves ahead with its inquiry, Vanderbilt University expert Thomas Schwarz said lawmakers will eventually have to consider whether Trump’s behavior is serious enough to warrant removal from office.
“I think the real question will be whether it rises to the level of an impeachable offense. It might be helpful in the investigation if they can find a pattern of this type of behavior in his other interactions with foreign leaders.”
Even if Democrats eventually move to impeach Trump in the House, they would face long odds on actually removing him from office because Republicans control the Senate. In a Senate impeachment trial, 67 of the 100 senators would have to find the president guilty in order to remove him from office.
The impeachment battle is already hardening feelings about Trump among both supporters and opponents.
Even as polls indicate growing support for impeachment, many of the same surveys show Trump’s base rallying to his support even more strongly than before.
And the longer the inquiry goes on, the more likely it is that it will further fray a nation already politically fractured, according to veteran analyst William Galston at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“So the polarization is both increasing and deepening and there is no getting around the fact that we are in for months of conflict around this issue,” Galston told VOA. “It will pour gasoline on an already raging fire, I am afraid.”
On the campaign trail
The impeachment inquiry is also dominating the Democrat’s presidential primary race. On the campaign trail in Nevada, Joe Biden had a direct message for the president. You are not going to destroy me and you are not going to destroy my family.”
What happens with the impeachment effort will have a big impact on the 2020 campaign.
“The next five to eight weeks is probably going to tell us a lot more about the 2020 presidential election than the last three years have,” Brookings analyst John Hudak told a panel discussion on impeachment earlier in the week.
Trump is no stranger to political battles, and the one coming up over impeachment could be the defining moment of his presidency.