When, after months of stoutly resisting, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her support for an official inquiry into whether President Trump committed an impeachable offense by allegedly inviting the government of Ukraine to involve itself in the American electoral process, the issue turned from the theoretical to the inevitable, teeing up what will be the bitterest, most contentious confrontation between the executive and legislative branches in the nation’s history.
The level of vitriol and contempt has already exceeded that which surrounded the impeachment investigations of Nixon and Clinton and will surely worsen, subjecting the American people to the darker impulses of everyone involved.
It will be an ugly, no quarter given back alley brawl with both sides using any weapon at hand to damage the other. It is the kind of combat Trump clearly enjoys; this one more so because his presidency is at stake.
He stands accused of attempting to recruit a foreign government — Ukraine — into uncovering damaging information on a political opponent, an allegation which, if true, goes beyond sleazy opposition research and crosses a line into subverting the U.S. electoral process.
The president and his allies, of course, claim he did no such thing, that his telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine was an altogether proper discussion between two heads of state and that any reference to former vice president Joe Biden and his son was in the context of news accounts of undue influence exerted by Biden to financially benefit his son.
The issue exploded with all the force of a 10 on the political Richter scale with the filing of a complaint by an anonymous whistleblower that Trump had attempted to use military aid to the Ukraine as a bargaining chip for embarrassing information on Biden.
It was this stunning revelation that pushed wavering House Democrats into the pro-impeachment camp and convinced Pelosi she could no longer counsel patience and caution in dealing with demands for an impeachment inquiry.
The White House quickly released a rough transcript of the telephone conversation which, the Administration argued, proved there was no explicit suggestion that the president conditioned releasing the military aid on Ukrainian authorities probing further into the activities of Biden and son.
There was no quid pro quo, the Administration insisted, and therefore no inducement to involve a foreign government in elections in this country.
The transcript was ambiguous at best, they contended, and basing an impeachment action on such a flimsy basis was a bridge too far.
Much the same argument was offered with respect to the whistleblower document, which the complainant conceded he or she had no first hand knowledge and that the allegations resulted from second or third party conversations.
The Administration argued that an “I was told by…” narrative is susceptible to embellishment, lack of proper context, political or personal bias, and misleading conclusions.
Launching an impeachment process on such a feeble and unsubstantiated basis, the president’s supporters said, is not only unwarranted but played into suggestions that Democrats are fixated on removing Trump from office by any means necessary because they are still smarting from their defeat in 2016.
In throwing the weight of her office and leadership position behind an impeachment inquiry, Pelosi has, in effect, predicted the outcome — committee approval of articles of impeachment is a given while a favorable House vote is likely.
Anything less would be an unmitigated disaster for Pelosi and the Democratic majority. Their failure would be a monumental Trump victory, emboldening him, strengthening his 2020 candidacy and validating Republican charges that the Democratic party had been captured by a bunch of wild, radical socialists.
At this point, a failure to impeach would surely go down as the greatest political blunder in modern politics. Pelosi will not permit that to be her legacy.
She will secure the 218 votes needed to approve impeachment and even succeed in bringing those Democrats who have serious misgivings over to her side by assuring them that conviction in the Senate is impossible and their vote, therefore, is without serious risk.
It will fall to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to convince his members that it is in their best interest to oppose impeachment, even though some may have concerns over the president’s actions.
Senate Democrats face the daunting prospect of luring 20 Republicans onto their side to convict Trump, a task which at the moment seems out of reach. Conversely, McConnell need only hold 34 Senators in line to block conviction, a task eminently doable.
This is not to suggest that Trump WOULD or SHOULD escape consequences for his behavior. It is merely to point out that he COULD.
What is certain, though, is that in the coming months and quite likely into the 2020 campaign season, the American people will be subjected to the most vicious, unbridled, tasteless rhetoric most have ever heard.
It will take a very long time to recover.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.