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President Donald Trump made history this past week, but not the kind he had hoped for. Trump is now the fourth U.S. president to become the subject of an impeachment inquiry, the U.S. constitutional process whereby Congress may remove a president from office.
But if history is any guide, both sides should take note that the politics of impeachment are complicated and risky, and the eventual outcome and fallout are often hard to predict.
What is clear from the past several days is that Donald Trump is now fully engaged in a battle to save his presidency.
“What these guys are doing, Democrats, are doing to this country is a disgrace and it shouldn’t be allowed,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “There should be a way of stopping it. Maybe legally through the courts.”
Trump has rejected a charge from Democrats that he abused the powers of his office by seeking Ukraine’s help to find damaging information about one of his Democratic rivals, former vice president Joe Biden.
Democrats point to a whistleblower complaint that detailed Trump’s attempt to get help from Ukraine and alleged White House efforts to cover it up.
Democrat Adam Schiff chairs the House Intelligence Committee.
“And if as alleged, and if as this record of the call already indicates, the president was instead of faithfully executing his office, was using that office as leverage to obtain dirt, have another country manufacture dirt on his opponent, it is hard to imagine a more fundamental abuse of that office,” Schiff said.
For the most part, Republicans continue to back the president, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. “I think people will find this to be overreach,” he said. “I think people will believe this is just revenge.”
A few Republicans have expressed various levels of concern. Utah Senator Mitt Romney, one of the few Republicans with a reputation of occasionally being critical of the president, said the summary of the phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president was “deeply troubling.”
The political impact of an impeachment battle during a presidential election campaign is hard to predict, especially on some of the president’s supporters.
“Are they then going to rally behind the president? That is certainly what Trump is banking on,” University of Illinois analyst William Howell told Associated Press Television. “He is going to do everything he can to elicit that kind of response by members of his own party.”
Trump did some musing about a possible impeachment during the Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Late last year, the president told Reuters that he was not concerned about impeachment.
“I think that the people would revolt if that happened,” he said.
Some Democratic strategists predict the impeachment battle could weaken Trump’s case for re-election, even if the effort falls short of forcing him out of office.
Many Democrats are no doubt mindful of what happened with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Clinton lied about and tried to cover up his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment by the House.
Clinton remained in office after a Senate trial in which he was acquitted.
Clinton and Andrew Johnson are the only two U.S. presidents to have been impeached. Johnson survived his own Senate trial in 1868.
In the aftermath of the Clinton impeachment, Republicans lost five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections.
University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato said that amounted to a political backlash over the impeachment effort. “Given the fact that the Republicans took a wounded Bill Clinton and made him almost invulnerable for the rest of his term, it should serve as a warning to Democrats,” he said.
Republicans may have paid a price for the Clinton impeachment in 1998, but two years later, Democrat Al Gore was defeated in the 2000 presidential election by Republican George W. Bush. Many experts believe the hangover from the Clinton scandal hurt Gore and may have cost him the presidency.
In 1974, Congress began impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. Nixon left office when it became clear that he would likely not survive an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Public opinion polls show voters remain sharply divided over whether to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry of Trump, though recent surveys have shown an uptick in support for the idea.
A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 49 percent of those surveyed favor the impeachment inquiry, while 46 percent oppose it.
A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found 43% in favor of starting the impeachment process, and 43% opposed. Support for impeachment was up 7 points from a previous poll conducted last week.
And a new Huffington Post/YouGov survey showed 47% now support impeaching Trump and removing him from office, while 39% are opposed.
The biggest obstacle facing the Democratic impeachment effort of Trump is the Republican-controlled Senate.
Republicans control the Senate by a margin of 53 to 47, and that includes two independents who usually vote with Democrats. That means Democrats would have to bring over at least 20 Republican senators in any impeachment trial in order to get a conviction and remove the president from office. So far, that seems like a long shot.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to keep Democrats focused on the Ukraine matter in the impeachment inquiry, rather than include a host of other issues related to the president that have come up previously. Pelosi did not give a timeline for the inquiry.
“They will take the time that they need, and we won’t have the calendar be the arbiter,” she said.
What comes next for President Trump and the country is not entirely clear, but both sides appear to be preparing for a long and divisive political battle with an uncertain outcome, just as the 2020 presidential campaign begins to heat up.