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Opinion

Column: Is the Trump impeachment snowball finally becoming an avalanche?

Trump speaks on impeachment
(Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)

Some months after Donald Trump took the oath of office, when many of us were still rubbing our eyes in disbelief, a handful of people who knew Trump well began predicting that he would implode under the pressure of the presidency, that he wouldn’t last out his first term.

Perhaps the most vocal and confident was Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote Trump’s best seller “The Art of the Deal.” Schwartz seemed to understand Trump’s psychology better than anyone.

As far back as two years ago in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Schwartz warned: “The snowball is beginning to gather momentum as it comes down the mountain. It reminds me a lot of Watergate and the last days of Nixon.”

He wasn’t wrong, as it turns out. He was just a couple years early.

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That slow-moving snowball — American public opinion — has finally picked up some speed.

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It takes time for Americans to come around on a momentous issue like impeachment.

Arguably, most of the country never did accept the impeachment of former President Clinton, who was accused of lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice for attempting to hide an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

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Independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report was so salacious that most Americans found themselves less disgusted by Clinton’s sexual escapades than Starr’s prurient interest in them.

In fact, as soon as the Republican-dominated House voted to impeach, Clinton’s already high popularity rating soared 10 points to 73%, an all-time high for him. (He was acquitted by the Republican-dominated Senate and finished out his second term, popular as ever, with a 65% approval rating.)

For the first two years of Trump’s tenure, with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, impeachment seemed little more than a desperate Democratic pipe dream.

The 2018 midterm elections then swept a majority of Democrats into the House, changing the political calculus. On election night, I remember asking Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who would become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and is one of Trump’s most dogged critics, whom his first subpoena would be going to. He just smiled.

Then came the whistleblower revelations about Trump holding up foreign aid for a struggling ally, Ukraine, in exchange for a commitment to dig up dirt on his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Followed by Trump’s brazen public call to China to do the same. (Will this go down in history as his Fifth Avenue Moment?)

In late September, the Democratic caucus came around, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry. So far, there has been no Clintonesque impeachment bump for Trump. His popularity, according to the Gallup poll, remains in the very low 40s, where it has been mired, with a few fleeting and not very reliable exceptions, since he took office.

In fact, as I look at polling averages on sites such as Real Clear Politics and FiveThirtyEight, it would appear that Trump has had only one week — his first in office — where his aggregated approval rating was actually higher than his disapproval rating, 45.5% to 41.3%.

Even some of his fiercest Republican supporters are starting to go wobbly as they watch him unravel.

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On Oct. 6, Trump made the precipitous decision to remove American troops from northern Syria, shocking his military command and dismaying even his staunchest apologists.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the move “a stain on America’s honor,” before backtracking a few days later, saying he would “withhold judgment.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) penned a blistering essay in the Washington Post, criticizing the move as “a strategic nightmare for our country.”

I can’t give McConnell much credit here, though. He never once invoked the president’s name, an appalling though probably deliberate oversight. (Imagined conversation between a Post editor and McConnell: “Shouldn’t you mention Trump’s name in here somewhere?” McConnell: “Are you talking to me?”)

They all fear the wrath of He-Who-McConnell-Must-Not-Name.

Things got even weirder.

The president’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitted on national television that Trump threatened to withhold money from Ukraine in exchange for a political favor — a clear quid pro quo. “Get over it,” he said, causing whiplash among Republicans who had been defending Trump.

Poor Sean Hannity’s head nearly exploded. He settled on calling Mulvaney “dumb,” adding, “I don’t think he even knows what he’s talking about.”

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And it was reportedly Republican pressure that forced Trump to reverse course on his decision to host the next Group of 7 summit at his own Doral resort in Florida, despite the fact that he blamed the change on “Do Nothing Radical Left Democrats” and the “Fake News Media.” Republicans told the president, according to news reports, that they were defending him on so many fronts that his desire to hold a meeting of world leaders at his struggling property in June, one of the muggiest months in South Florida, was an emolument too far.

The cracks in Trump’s Republican support may be few, but they are widening. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) risked withering scorn to announce he is open to Trump’s impeachment and removal. Retiring Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) compared Trump to Nixon: “I’ve been real mindful of the fact that during Watergate, all the people I knew said, ‘Oh, they’re just abusing Nixon, and it’s a witch hunt.’ Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt. It was really bad.”

A spate of news stories have noted that influential aggregator Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, who vaulted to fame and fortune pushing Clinton’s impeachment, appears to have “soured” on Trump, and has been highlighting pro-impeachment commentary.

Is it any surprise that Trump is unraveling in full view?

On Monday, in a Cabinet meeting that devolved into a 71-minute rant against his critics, he carped about accusations that hosting the G-7 meeting would violate the U.S. Constitution: “You people with this phony emoluments clause.”

On Tuesday morning, as a top American diplomat testified to House impeachment investigators that Trump’s threat to withhold military aid to Ukraine was conditioned on Ukraine’s commitment to investigate the Bidens, the president compared the impeachment inquiry to a “lynching,” an analogy so revolting that he has made clear, again, there is no bottom to his clueless self-pity.

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Pollsters began regularly quizzing Americans about impeaching Trump over the summer. In August, only 41% approved of an inquiry.

That number has jumped to 51%, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

Not all polls are registering such a dramatic shift, but the trend is clear. For example, the website FiveThirtyEight has just launched an impeachment polling tracker. The aggregated poll is frequently updated; Monday afternoon, it found, 49.6% of Americans support impeachment, while 43.7% oppose it.

Could the snowball finally become an avalanche?


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