Washington Wednesday: Continued impeachment drama

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 16th of October, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.  It’s Washington Wednesday.

Well, Democrats’ push to impeach President Trump continues. On Monday House committees heard from former White House Russia adviser Fiona Hill. 

This week also brings several deadlines for documents requests—including two issued to Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

But it’s unlikely Democrats will get much from them. The White House says it will not cooperate until the House votes to officially begin an impeachment inquiry. So far, that hasn’t happened. 

Here now to discuss the latest developments with me is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 

Henry, good to talk to you again!

HENRY OLSEN, GUEST: Thanks for having me back.

EICHER: When you and I last spoke, last month, Democrats had just announced their impeachment investigation. And as a reminder: This isn’t about Russia—not directly, anyway. This latest push is about a July phone call President Trump had with Ukraine’s new president. Trump asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, who had business dealings in Ukraine. 

Now, Congress has been away the last couple of weeks, but Democrats have plowed ahead with committee interviews, subpoenas and the rest. Lots of media interviews. How much more do we now know—versus about a month ago—about this Ukraine story?

OLSEN: I don’t think we know a whole lot more. There’s tiny bits of evidence that occasionally come out that are much ballyhooed, but the core of the allegation remains the telephone call that the president had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he mentioned Joe Biden’s name and asked the president to get to the bottom of whatever happened there. 

EICHER: Did Hunter Biden not legitimize this at least a little bit by announcing ahead of the Democratic debate last night that he would not serve on any foreign boards should his father win election? 

OLSEN: Well, yeah, I think that will continue to give cause for Republicans to say that there was a there there. That if this was something Hunter Biden thinks causes his dad problems, maybe he should have thought that it would cause his dad problems six years ago when his dad was the vice president of the United States. I don’t think it helps in the short term and I think it will continue to keep the issue alive for Republicans in the not so distant future. 

EICHER: Well, let’s talk about Republican politics. The GOP has remained almost universally supportive of the president on the impeachment question. But most of them have focused on process, not the substance of the criticism about Trump’s efforts to get foreign governments—whether we’re talking about Ukraine or that moment when he was speaking to the media and saying, you know, I think China ought to investigate the Bidens. How do you assess the Republican approach? 

OLSEN: I think what the Republicans are primarily looking at are two things. One is what comes out through the investigation process. They know that they don’t know what they don’t know. And so getting ahead of the news is a very risky proposition for them. 

Secondly, what they are very carefully looking at is how the Republican voter base is taking this, that to-date there has been very little slippage in the president’s job approval rating among Republicans. Very little support among Republicans and Trump-supporters for an inquiry, much less removal from office. 

And it defies belief that Republican members of the House or the Senate will go against the wishes of 75 or 80 percent of their voters. So they’re waiting to see what happens in the court of public opinion. 

EICHER: I guess if you’re a Republican office holder, it’s a little difficult—I think you said it nicely—you don’t want to get out ahead of the news. Does that mean you don’t want to get out ahead of what President Trump might say on Twitter the next day if you put yourself in a position of defending this, that, or the other thing? 

OLSEN: Yeah, but they’re darned if they do, darned if they don’t in the sense that if they get out ahead by saying he unequivocally has done nothing wrong and is fit for office, you never know what’s going to come up. 

On the other hand, if they go ahead and say, you know, I’ve seen enough. It’s time the guy ought to go. Well, they are way out of base with where the Republicans are. So they are politically—from a political sense—properly in a holding pattern. They are waiting to see whether it is safe for the plane to touch down. 

EICHER: Let’s talk about the polls for a moment. There have been at least some Democrats arguing for impeachment since 2017, so there is a lengthy polling history on this. A month ago, only 40 percent of Americans supported impeachment based on the Russia investigation. 

And as you would expect, Democrats were overwhelmingly for it, Republicans overwhelmingly against it, and independents in between. 

That breakdown hasn’t changed. But what has changed over the last three weeks is that support for impeachment has risen in all three of those groups. So now, overall, roughly 50 percent of Americans want to impeach the president, 44 percent don’t. That’s new

How does public opinion factor into all of this? 

OLSEN: Well, I think it certainly factors into the votes of members of both parties, that once the Ukrainian phone call became public, it was quite clear that moderate Democrats could no longer hold back the progressives. That if they did not come out in favor of impeachment, they risked primary challenge. 

And the flip side for the Republicans is any Republican who comes out [for] impeachment who’s not in a swing district is going to be savaged by members of their own party—whether in a primary now or later. 

So, I think public opinion has a huge amount to do with what will actually happen, as opposed to some sort of theoretical cone of political silence, for the old Get Smart fans. Votes may take place that would be different than votes in the real political world. But both party’s representatives are in the real political world. 

EICHER: I’d like for you to speculate a bit. Why do you suppose Democrats haven’t voted officially to open an impeachment inquiry? Do you think that moderate Democrats or Democrats in Trump-leaning districts don’t want to go on the record? What’s your theory on that?

OLSEN: That’s exactly what I think is going on. Eventually, they will have to vote. Because the House cannot impeach the president without a vote of its members. You cannot get it passed by a committee and then the Speaker says, ‘Okay, we’re done.’ 

But what delaying the floor vote means is that until there is a specific charge on which they can hang their coats, the moderates do not have to have an irrevocable vote. 

Now, that said, they have had a number of statements in which they have committed themselves in a way that’s difficult to distinguish from an actual vote. But there’s still a number of Democrats in Republican-leaning seats who have not committed one way or another. And people like Anthony Brindisi in upstate New York. 

And by not having a vote, it allows those 10-20 Democrats to continue to be in ambiguous land until they are forced to make a decision. 

EICHER: Before I let you go, I want to make a radical shift of gears. I’m curious what you know about what’s going on with regard to Syria. Because outside of Rand Paul, who’s more of a Libertarian, really, than a Republican, there seems to be a universal sort of bipartisan criticism of the president’s decision to pull out of Syria and expose the Kurds to the Turks. Including staunch allies. So it’s not just moderate Republicans. Do you see, Henry, that as relevant to the impeachment conversation either for Republicans or Democrats, or do you see it on completely separate tracks? 

OLSEN: It is on somewhat separate tracks. It is intertwined in the sense that it will certainly color the way Republicans view Trump, but when push comes to shove, they will make the same calculation they would have made otherwise, which is to say one based on part politics and part fact. 

The fact is that the Republican elites are much more interventionist than their voters. I suspect that in 10 days or so, when the first polls that will be released with information coming out post the decision and post the Turkish invasion come out, that you’ll see no erosion and, perhaps, even a little strengthening in Trump’s position. Because most voters in the United States do not care about what happens in Syria or Turkey or the Kurds. They only care if their lives are threatened. And speculation that ISIS may or may not come back is not sufficient to worry most Americans. 

EICHER: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s also a Washington Post columnist. Henry, it’s always a pleasure. 

OLSEN: Thanks for having me back.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. 

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