Battle for Public Opinion Shapes Trump Impeachment Effort

With public hearings now under way in the House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, both sides have a key focus in mind: winning over public opinion.

Support for the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry climbed quickly in the weeks following the announcement by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. At present, the country remains sharply split on the question of whether the president should be impeached by the House and the case sent to the Senate for a trial that would decide whether he remains in office.

About 50 percent on average in national polls favor the president’s impeachment and removal from office if convicted in the trial, while slightly less oppose the idea.

US Trump Impeachment Public Opinion video player.

Democrats are counting on the public hearings to bolster support for impeachment, according to Georgetown University scholar Susan Low Bloch.

“This is not a situation where the House and the Senate would remove someone because they don’t like him,” Bloch told VOA. “That would be wrong and that is not what is at issue here. But it is also at the same time a political process that has to have the public behind them.”

New phase

The public hearings represent a critical new phase in the impeachment probe, and Democrats led off the sessions with testimony from two veteran Foreign Service officers: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Ambassador William Taylor.

Taylor testified to key details about what he believed was the White House decision to delay military aid for Ukraine while Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to move ahead with investigations of the Democrats and the 2016 election and Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden.

FILE – House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., talks to the media after a hearing with testimony from top U.S. diplomats in Ukraine.

“To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense,” Taylor recalled during his testimony.

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that alleged conduct by the president may fit the constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors that warrants impeachment.

“Is this what Americans should now expect from their president? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?” Schiff asked during his opening statement.

Aggressive defense

Republicans said the witness testimony about the president’s actions was second- and third-hand and that the aid for Ukraine was eventually secured.

FILE – House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2017.

In addition, Congressman Devin Nunes said the impeachment inquiry was part of a long-standing Democratic plot to bring down the president.

“Anyone familiar with the Democrats’ scorched earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.”

Trump has repeatedly said the Democrats have no case.

“There has never been a president who has been so transparent. This is a witch hunt at the highest level and it is so bad for our country,” Trump told reporters during a recent campaign trip.

Moving the public

Analysts will be watching to see what impact the hearings might have on public opinion and next year’s presidential election.

“I think it remains to be seen what impact impeachment is going to have on the 2020 election. Right now, it is just solidifying the opinions of supporters of each party,” said Ramesh Ponnuru of the American Enterprise Institute. He appears on this week’s Press Conference USA program on VOA radio.

Republicans show few signs of deserting Trump, but University of Virginia expert Barbara Ann Perry predicted they will be closely watching public opinion polls as the hearings play out.

“If they saw that the people in their state or members of Congress in their district saw that Donald Trump was becoming increasingly unpopular and disapproved of, I could see then that members of Congress could turn on him even in his own party. That is the impact of public opinion,” she told VOA recently via Skype.

For Democrats, the hearings will be an opportunity to bring out the facts and try to build a bipartisan case for impeachment.

“For a president to be removed means that both parties, a significant part of both parties, have to agree to that,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “So Democrats are going to want to see a lot more movement in public opinion and maybe that will happen over the course of the investigation, but it certainly has not moved tremendously.”

Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 when Republicans began to abandon him in Congress and his support plummeted in public opinion polls.

Bill Clinton survived a Senate impeachment trial in 1999 when much of the public rejected Republican efforts to remove him from office. Clinton’s public approval rating actually improved during the impeachment process.

Trump’s approval remains on average at around 41 percent, down slightly from before the impeachment inquiry began in late September.