Impeachment is coming. Then what?

A divided country looks headed toward a divided result: A Democratic impeachment in the House, then a Republican acquittal in the Senate, followed by a bitter and hard-fought election campaign that will decide the fate of a president with a unique place in U.S. history.

Even Republicans concede Trump is likely to be impeached. Then the fight begins

U.S. President Donald Trump looks likely to be impeached by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, after which the stage will be set for a trial before the Senate. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

The impending impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump is a fait accompli, according to some Republicans.

One even closed out a round of hearings this week saying Trump will likely be the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.

"Impeachment is almost inevitable," Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah said Thursday. 

"Everyone knows what [Democrats are] going to do next. They're going to impeach the president. They're going to send it on to the Senate."

Then what?

There is not even a subatomic particle of evidence that Senate Republicans are inclined to remove Trump from office — it would take about 20 votes in the upper chamber and there are zero Republicans on the record as favouring it.

That would leave things split down the middle, just like the United States — divided, riven by partisan acrimony and stuck in a political stalemate.

Democrats who control the House are being egged on by their supporters to impeach; Republicans who control the Senate are consistently warned by their voters they'd better not dare consider it.

Meanwhile, support for impeachment hasn't really budged. It still enjoys slight plurality support but, at best, it's stalled. Arguably it's dipped slightly. 

Watch: Trump impeachment hearings haven't swayed independent voters

The public testimony at U.S. Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings hasn’t swayed independent voters. CBC’s Steven D’Souza went to New Jersey where he found voters had not let go of preconceived notions regardless of political affiliation. 2:55

Trump supporters have proven impermeable to the evidence so far — whether it's a transcript of him speaking about a "favour"; or his ally describing a quid pro quo; or an allegation that U.S. interests take a backseat to nailing Joe Biden's family.

Has any president in history ever had such immovable poll numbers?

No, says pollster and presidential historian Terry Madonna, since the advent of modern polling techniques, about six decades ago there's been no president like Trump.

It's not that he's popular — he's not, really. Only two polls out of 63 conducted between Sept. 21 and Nov. 21 showed Trump's approval rating in positive territory.

What makes Trump unique is his numbers don't budge; they haven't substantively moved in 18 months.

There's no evidence Senate Republicans are inclined to remove Trump from office — none say they favour it. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

"If he has a great week, he goes up two points. If he has a terrible week, he goes down two points," said Madonna. "Regardless of what happens, it doesn't move the needle."

What about impeachment — might it have an effect?

Madonna says no, but adds it's probably too early to say for sure. 

The basic story of Trump, he says, is one of intense passion: those who love him, or hate him, love him or hate him a lot. Impeachment just energizes everyone on both sides. 

As for Independent voters, they're split too — not keen on Trump, not keen on impeaching him.

CBC News spoke to several of them in New Jersey's 11th congressional district — a so-called purple district which has tended to follow the national mood. It elected a Republican to the House in 2016, a Democrat in 2018, and gave Hillary Clinton a minuscule edge over Trump in the 2016 popular vote, by less than one percentage point.

Trump supporters have so far proven impermeable to the evidence against him, and his poll numbers have barely budged. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Independents there expressed no love for Trump, even outright disdain, but wavered on whether impeachment hearings were a good idea.

Richard DeLuca called Trump a "narcissist" — then caught himself, and added "ultimate narcissist" for emphasis. He said Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony was damaging, but concluded the process is pointless.

"He'll be acquitted by Republicans [in the Senate]," said DeLuca, 89, who used to be a Republican until the Nixon presidency, and now oscillates between the parties.

"Then what have we got? More stalemate, nothing being done … When I think of all the necessary legislation that's been sitting on shelves, I almost get sick." 

Sue Davies, another New Jersey Independent who dislikes Trump, said Democrats are just doing this to weaken him before the presidential election. 

"They can't pass a bill," she said scornfully of both parties. "They can't solve the problems we're facing." 

Slap on the wrist? 

So if Trump gets through this, what does that mean? 

Will it become accepted practice for presidents to press foreign countries to investigate election opponents?

Perhaps not. Some analysts think the Senate might find a way to lay down a marker for future presidents, while giving this one a pass.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the idea of the Senate delivering the two-thirds majority to remove Trump seems 'inconceivable' to him. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

In a recent Wall Street Journal column former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan said Republicans could deliver a symbolic wrist-slap by censuring Trump for abuse of power — though that hasn't happened in nearly two centuries

Noonan said it makes sense, in a divided country, to keep Trump in office and let voters decide his fate in next year's election.

Presidential historian Jeffrey Engel says he also expects Republican senators to try splitting the difference following a House impeachment.

"I suspect this will end up with GOP senators arguing, 'Yes he did it, but it's not a high crime,'" said Engel, co-author of the book Impeachment: An American History

Ugly trial 

Twice in U.S. history, a president has been impeached by the House only to have the Senate not vote to remove him.

The way Republicans are talking, Trump would be the third.

And that's precisely what Stewart, the Utah Republican, predicts will happen next — after a Senate trial that could get ugly for Democrats. 

"The warm-up band is over," he said of the House proceedings. "Now we're going to go on to the main event."

Stewart said the Senate trial will see Republicans turn the heat on Democrats, calling new witnesses, and asking questions like what, exactly, Joe Biden's son did to earn his generous retainer from the Ukrainian energy company at the centre of the scandal.

Senate Republicans have hinted they might also torture Democrats by dragging out a trial into next year, keeping rival senators glued to Washington — including those half-dozen running for president and hoping to spend the winter months campaigning.

"I'm sure they're going to be excited to be here in their [Senate] chairs," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said last week.

He added that the idea of the Senate delivering the two-thirds majority to remove Trump seems "inconceivable" to him.

Watch: How hard is it to impeach a president?

Impeachment is the political process of removing from office certain elected or public officials accused of wrongdoing. The process is more difficult than you might think. 2:01

That said, both parties are still reportedly refining their strategies. 

The Republicans have not yet settled on plans for a trial. Democrats have not yet declared when the House intelligence committee will complete its report and move onto the next phase: deliberations by the judiciary committee.

It's unclear if Democrats will wait much longer to hear from new witnesses — including key ones, like former White House official John Bolton.

After all, the Democrat leading the hearings so far sounded like his mind was already made up on impeachment. 

As he closed out the first batch of public proceedings, Adam Schiff, head of the intelligence committee, called the Ukraine affair worse than the 1972 Watergate break-in that led to Richard Nixon's downfall.

"What we have seen here is far more serious than a third-rate burglary," Schiff said. 

"[This] is beyond anything Nixon did. The difference between then and now is not the difference between Nixon and Trump, it is the difference between that Congress and this one."

He then cast a parting shot at his Republican colleagues, comparing them unfavourably to the Republicans of the Watergate era.

"Where is Howard Baker?" he said, alluding to the top Republican during Watergate hearings. "Where are the people who are willing to go beyond their party to look to their duty?"

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With files by Steven D'Souza


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