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Does The Democrats’ Impeachment Timeline Still Make Sense?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We’ve heard from witnesses involved in U.S. and Ukraine diplomatic relations, and we’ve heard constitutional experts testify whether President Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine was an impeachable offense. Today, we heard both Republican and Democratic lawyers outline their cases for — and against — impeachment based on the evidence collected in the impeachment inquiry thus far.

First, let’s unpack those arguments a little. What do Democrats say the evidence collected in their 300-page report shows? What do Republicans say in their own 123-page report? Is the basic set of facts really at dispute here? Then, let’s turn to some of the thornier political issues raised in this inquiry, including the Democrats’ timeline and the scope of the charges as Democrats prepare to draft the articles of impeachment.

OK, Amelia, walk us through the Democratic and Republican arguments in broad strokes.

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): The Democrats’ case against Trump has basically coalesced around three main themes: 1) bribery, 2) abuse of power, and 3) obstruction of Congress and/or justice.

The bribery and abuse of power arguments both hinge on the idea that Trump used his official power as president to try to get a personal political benefit — i.e., an investigation into the Bidens. And then there’s Trump’s total refusal to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, including blocking key witnesses from testifying, which Democrats have also said is an impeachable offense because it violates the separation of powers.

Republicans, on the other hand, have tried out a number of different defenses of Trump over the past few weeks.

One is that Trump had legitimate reasons for being suspicious of Ukraine and for requesting the investigations, because of a debunked theory that Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election.

Another is that the Democrats’ inquiry is going too quickly and was rigged against Trump from the start. (It’s pretty weird to argue that Democrats haven’t been aggressive enough in going after witnesses who have been blocked from testifying by Trump, but рџ¤·‍в™ЂпёЏ.)

And then finally, Republicans have said there is no proof that Trump’s intent was bad when he asked for the investigations.

sarahf: Is it fair, Amelia, to say that both Democrats and Republicans are working from the same basic set of facts? Or is even that in dispute?

ameliatd: I’d say the facts aren’t really in dispute — but their meaning definitely is. Everyone seems to agree that Trump asked for the investigations on the July 25 call, for example. But while Democrats see that as evidence that Trump was applying pressure to Ukraine’s president, Republicans say there was nothing wrong with Trump “asking serious questions” about the Bidens or 2016 election interference. And while Democrats seem to think they’ve established there was a quid pro quo, where military aid and/or a White House meeting were conditioned on an announcement of the investigations, Republicans have argued that Democrats still haven’t decisively connected all of those dots to Trump (even though, to be clear, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing in that direction).

sarahf: Let’s turn to some of the political arguments then, since impeachment is inherently a political process. One question levied against the Democrats (largely by Republicans) is why are Democrats rushing the impeachment process? Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School, made this a central part of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, arguing that the Democrats could have a case for impeachment, but do not because the process had been so rushed.

Is that a fair criticism of the Democrats’ efforts at this point? Or strategically speaking, does it make sense that Democrats have moved at the speed they have?

ameliatd: Democrats have been in a really difficult position from the beginning, because Trump hasn’t cooperated and has kept key witnesses from testifying. Democrats could have gone to court to force people to testify — but the judicial system moves at a fairly glacial speed, so that would have meant delaying the ultimate impeachment vote for a long time. Trump, of course, knew that and has been benefiting from the slowness of the courts in a number of different legal cases, not just impeachment.

So an argument like Turley’s is honestly pretty brazen, since Trump is the reason these witnesses aren’t testifying. The Republicans are basically criticizing the Democrats for refusing to jump over the hurdles that the White House put in their way.

On the other hand, some folks on the left have also been arguing that Democrats are making a strategic mistake by not trying to get testimony from the people who really knew what was happening with these investigations and the aid. Part of the hope here is, I guess, that this could provide more evidence against Trump that shifts public opinion.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Right, there are some calls from the left to go slow — mainly from lefty writers/bloggers, etc. (Some non-partisan people are making this case too.) Their core argument is that impeachment is going to be handed over to the Senate soon, and Trump will be acquitted, so he wins. So instead, they’re pushing to keep the investigation going and look for things that really hurt Trump in terms of public opinion.

As Brian Beutler of Crooked Media, the media organization behind Pod Save America, wrote, “It is not actually possible that Pelosi’s impeachment timeline is good for Democrats and also good for Trump. Someone’s wrong.”

In other words, Trump seems to want the impeachment process to move quickly and so do a lot of Democrats. But this is an impeachment/removal fight, not a budget deal — both sides can’t really win here.

ameliatd: The issue with that strategy is that it’s risky! Democrats could end up fighting over these witnesses in court for months, and ultimately lose. And in the meantime, Republicans keep making the argument that the election is coming up and the voters will get to decide what happens to Trump.

sarahf: I hadn’t seen that argument to go slow emerge in Democratic circles until recently, Perry — and it’s an interesting one. You sort of described it in Slack as a zero-sum political game, which I think is spot on. It’s weird that both Trump and Pelosi are sort of advocating the same thing — a quick impeachment — albeit for very different reasons, right? One of them should stand to lose?

perry: A party-line impeachment vote in both chambers doesn’t really do anything useful for the Democrats. But their choices may be a party-line House impeachment vote in December … or in February/March. I just don’t see any pro-impeachment/removal GOP votes in Congress. There is a question of whether impeachment could be supported by 60 or 70 percent of Americans, which would mean it’s a real political winner for Democrats, even if Trump remains in office. But that would require basically all independents or some sizable number of Republicans to support it, and I just don’t see that happening under any scenario.

ameliatd: This is the issue, I think, Perry. It’s hard to imagine what evidence could emerge by February or March that would change a lot of people’s minds — either voters or Republicans in the Senate.

Our polling with Ipsos suggests that people’s views on impeachment are increasingly baked in — or they’re not really paying attention. So, it’s of course possible that if Democrats could get a big witness like former national security advisor John Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to share what they know, that could shake things up. But it just seems really unlikely that they’d be able to get that evidence through a court battle in the next few months.

sarahf: So it seems as if we agree that an accelerated timeline with the evidence Democrats have seems like their best bet, but is it also true that this is the best scenario for Trump?

perry: I’m not sure. I just don’t think there is a good bet for anyone here. A party-line impeachment/removal process doesn’t really punish Trump or deter him from soliciting foreign help even later in the 2020 cycle. At the same time, being impeached is still quite bad — I’m not sure that there is a preferable way to be impeached. (Well, I guess a clear majority of the country opposed Clinton’s impeachment, so that’s somewhat better than what Trump is up against.)

ameliatd: Right — it’s hard to argue that what’s happening to Trump right now is a best-case anything for him, because no president wants to be impeached. But his approval rating hasn’t really taken a hit so far. And once the process moves to the Senate, the Republicans will have the reins. So I think Trump’s strategy of refusing to cooperate — and the fact that many key witnesses haven’t broken ranks — is definitely working to his advantage. Turns out total obstruction can be pretty dang effective.

sarahf: But OK, say the Democrats abandon their current timeline and go bigger. Part of what is embedded in that argument is Democrats would have to be much more expansive in their inquiry. Or they’d have to try to turn up more evidence in the current inquiry, which, given the lack of cooperation from the administration, seems futile. One way Democrats could go bigger is including special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election as part of the obstruction of Congress/justice charge. On the one hand, it arguably establishes a pattern of wrongdoing by the president. But on the other hand, it also invites a number of political risks?

perry: I actually don’t think there are any political risks for Democrats, no matter what their impeachment strategy is. The numbers seem pretty stable, about 48 percent for and 44 percent against impeachment.

But this hasn’t stopped some of the moderate Democrats from saying that people in their districts want them to move on to other issues. Hmm, sure? What exactly is passing in Washington right now and getting enacted that matters to people? The House passes bills all the time, but they often go nowhere and no one even covers them. For instance, the House passed a major voting rights bill last Friday, but given that all but one Republican voted against it, it’s likely dead upon arrival in the Senate. So while the moderate Democrats are spending a lot of time positioning themselves as left but not too left, the idea that voters in November 2020 will care if impeachment happens in February 2020 or December 2019 seems very far-fetched to me.

ameliatd: Democrats are trying to make the argument that Trump’s behavior is an ongoing threat. So as you mentioned, Sarah, arguably folding in other kinds of misconduct — the obstruction of justice allegations outlined in Mueller’s report, maybe his financial conflicts of interest — bolsters the contention that Ukraine wasn’t a one-off. One argument against that is that it makes the case much more complex than it is right now. And the Ukraine saga is already a complicated story. Another possible objection is that the Mueller report didn’t create broader momentum for impeachment — so why try to drag it back in now?

I guess I just wonder how much voters actually care about what’s in each individual article of impeachment. The basic contours of the Ukraine saga are pretty clear at this point. Maybe it’s risky to wade back into relitigating the Mueller report for the reasons I mentioned above and it probably won’t bring anyone new on board — but I also don’t think it will turn off voters who are already on Democrats’ side if there’s an obstruction of justice article plus an obstruction of Congress article.

sarahf: Right, and given that the Democrats will draft multiple articles of impeachment, is there a world in which the bribery charge could be very tailored and specific and the article on obstruction is broader so some more moderate Democratic members can vote against it to signal their independence?

Or do you think that it’s politically better that the Democrats have a party-line vote, without any dissent?

ameliatd: If moderate Democrats don’t like an article, they can vote against it — which might give them some political cred at home, if they want to argue they aren’t just rubber-stamping impeachment. It’s not like that would be unprecedented, either. Not all of the articles of impeachment against Nixon and Clinton made it out of the Judiciary Committee or the House, for instance.

perry: I happen to think everything about Trump is partisan. So Democrats should write whatever articles they think are accurate. They should include details from the Mueller investigation, since the Ukraine scandal is basically just a sped-up version of the Russia one (Trump pushes/welcomes/invites foreign interference in an American election, then limits investigations of it) and allow members to vote how they please. I am sure various moderate House Democrats will try to give speeches or take steps to convince people that they are independent-minded and weren’t just rushing to impeach Trump like their more liberal colleagues. But I don’t think any of this strategizing matters.

Maybe voters care if you opposed impeachment the whole time (so Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, who voted against the initial impeachment inquiry.) But my guess is even those votes will be drowned out by partisanship, with Van Drew and Peterson’s Republican opponents linking them to Democrats and Trump haters. The bottom line is: If you voted for the impeachment inquiry, it’s over. Voters will see you as anti-Trump, no matter if you vote for one article or all the articles.

ameliatd: Yeah, Perry, I think the votes on the specific charges matter much less than the ultimate outcome. Most people are not going to be parsing the distinction between various kinds of obstruction.

sarahf: So maybe there is an argument for Democrats to throw the kitchen sink at impeachment, as long as they do it under a condensed timeline?

ameliatd: And there’s a principled argument to be made that Democrats should include all of the conduct that they think is impeachable — this is their shot to get all of this in the record and the history books. So I’m not sure what’s to be gained by pulling punches now.

perry: That’s an argument, but it’s not a political one — I just think there is no reason to keep up the fiction that the Democrats impeached Trump ONLY because of what happening involving Ukraine, when the majority of Democrats were already for impeachment anyway, after the Mueller report. The politics here seem set, so I think Democrats can kind of do what they want. An impeachment in February or March or April that includes details from the Mueller probe (or a December impeachment about just Ukraine) will, I think, still have the same outcome — a president who remains in office who has still not really committed to not solicit foreign help in future elections.

ameliatd: If Democrats are not going to fight this out in the courts, I don’t see why they would delay an impeachment vote. Yes, it kicks things over to the Senate where Trump will have an advantage and seems very likely at this point to be acquitted. But Democrats also seem to have exhausted all of their avenues for getting new evidence without a court order telling new witnesses they have to testify. And without new evidence, we’re probably just going to be stuck in the same place we are now — where the evidence against Trump is bad, but the country is basically divided on impeachment, everything is partisan, nothing matters, endless repeat.

How the televised hearings have moved public opinion on impeachment

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.