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Politics

Public opinion could shift slowly on impeachment, but it will move

Essential Politics

Just a week ago, impeachment was over and done with.

President Trump certainly thought so. “I thought we won. I thought it was dead,” Trump said in his long, often-rambling, but oddly subdued news conference in New York on Wednesday, the day after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would begin impeachment proceedings.

On July 24, Robert S. Mueller III had testified before Congress in a hearing that left Democrats frustrated and Trump exulting. The Mueller investigation was finished. Polls showed a large majority of the public opposed to impeachment, roughly a 60%-40% split.

The next day, as he has so often in his life, Trump decided to push his luck. He had a telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and said the phrase that now endangers his presidency: “I would like you to do us a favor. ...”

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WHAT THE PUBLIC THINKS

How fast has the impeachment drama moved? Trump’s words became public Wednesday, as part of the account of the telephone call that the White House publicly released. By then, the critical mass of House members already had shifted.

Even before they saw Trump’s words, the overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House had decided that Trump’s admission that he talked with Zelensky about investigating Joe Biden — soliciting a foreign government’s intervention in a U.S. election — left them no choice but to move to impeach him, as Jennifer Haberkorn, Sarah Wire and Molly O’Toole wrote.

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The key turning point was a joint statement on Monday night by seven House freshmen from swing districts, all with national security backgrounds, who wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that the allegations against Trump were “stunning, both in the national security threat they pose and the potential corruption they represent.”

In all, it took fewer than four days — from the first news reports about a whistleblower who alleged Trump had acted improperly to the ultimate decision to move ahead — for opinion among the swing members of the House Democratic caucus to shift.

Opinion in the House hardened further as members read the whistleblower’s complaint, which alleged conduct that Pelosi quickly labeled an attempted White House cover-up, as Chris Megerian, Eli Stokols and O’Toole wrote.

Prominent legal scholars also say that Trump’s effort to enlist political help from a foreign government is the type of action that the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote that a president could be removed from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” David Savage wrote.

What of the public?

An early flurry of polls over the past few days already have shown some increase in support for impeachment. A survey by Morning Consult for Politico, for example, showed Americans evenly divided, with 43% saying Congress should begin impeachment proceedings, an equal share saying they should not, and 13% undecided. That was an increase in support for impeachment of 7 points in a week, with the movement mostly from Democrats, but including some increase among both independents and Republicans.

A poll by Marist College for NPR and PBS found a similarly close split in public opinion — 49% approving the House decision to start an impeachment process, 46% disapproving.

L.A. Times reporters captured that split in public opinion in interviews with voters around the country.

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All that gives an idea of where public opinion starts. It doesn’t tell where the public will end up.

Previous impeachment efforts show that public opinion, however entrenched it may seem, does move as Americans tune into the debate in Washington.

When Republicans impeached President Clinton, public opinion started out divided. But by the time the House voted to impeach, in December 1998, Americans had reached a verdict: Only about 30% favored removing him from office, even though a large majority thought he was guilty of having lied about his sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.

In the case of Richard Nixon, public opinion moved the other way. But it shifted slowly.

Marquette University political scientist Charles Franklin has compiled Gallup polling of Nixon’s job approval. It shows a sharp decline as news of the Watergate trials grabbed public attention early in 1973. The decline steepened with the Senate Watergate committee hearings that summer.

But then public opinion hit a plateau. Even dramatic events like the firing in late 1973 of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation of Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson in the standoff over Nixon’s tapes — the so-called Saturday night massacre — did not change Nixon’s standing with the public.

Only at the very end, in the summer of 1974, when the tapes became public and the House voted its impeachment resolutions, did support for Nixon in his own party start to crumble.

“It took a long time and lots of hearings and evidence to move opinion,” Franklin says.

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House Democrats hope to move ahead quickly with their impeachment proceedings with an eye toward bringing the process to a conclusion before the election year begins.

Members of Congress, of course, are partisans and inevitably see impeachment through a party lens, as Mark Barabak noted, comparing members’ statements during the Clinton impeachment with their current views.

The undecided bloc of Americans, however, are overwhelmingly people who are not so partisan and are generally not paying close attention to news. History suggests that even if the case for impeachment seems clear to many House Democrats, they will need to fully air the case for the public if they want to rally a majority of the country to their side.

TRUMP’S SELF-DESTRUCTIVE SIDE

Trump’s call to Zelensky provides yet more evidence of his impulsive, risk-taking behavior.

His response to the impeachment proceedings illustrated another side of his personality that many Americans dislike.

In a private meeting with members of the U.S. mission to the United Nations Thursday morning, Trump denounced the whistleblower and those who talked to him as “almost a spy” and likened their conduct to “treason.” Stokols obtained an audio recording of Trump’s remarks.

By contrast, the nation’s top intelligence official, Joseph Maguire, defended the whistleblower, saying he “did the right thing” and “followed the law,” Del Wilber wrote.

But Trump doesn’t act alone. As Noah Bierman, Stokols and Megerian wrote, the whistleblower complaint provides evidence that a large number of Trump’s loyalists have worked to keep his potential misconduct from becoming public.

DEMOCRATS’ STRATEGY AND LEADERS

Even on Tuesday, when she announced that the House would move forward toward impeachment, Pelosi talked about six committees proceeding with their separate investigations. But that strategy shifted quickly as events unfolded. As Haberkorn wrote, the Democrats see Ukraine as a much clearer case than other alleged Trump abuses, and they plan to keep their fire aimed on that.

That focus on the Ukraine case also means that Rep. Adam Schiff will be at the impeachment helm, Sarah Wire wrote. Schiff is an ally of Pelosi’s, and many Democrats see him as a better spokesperson for the party than Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler of New York.

WARREN’S SURGE

Ironically, Trump endangered his presidency by going after Biden at precisely the moment that Biden’s candidacy has begun to falter.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been surging in the Democratic race, moving to the fore in polls of Iowa voters, and taking the lead in California, according to the new Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll conducted for the the L.A. Times. Warren has broadened her support in the state, compared with our last poll in June, and the survey indicates that she has more room to grow.

The numbers were gloomier for Sen. Kamala Harris, who is now stuck in fourth place in her home state, well behind the leaders. It’s even worse for Tom Steyer, the California billionaire and political activist. He got 0.1% support in the poll.

Warren’s lead in California is important not only because the state has more delegates than any other to the nominating convention, but also because it’s a big, diverse place. Its electorate more closely mirrors Democrats nationwide than does the overwhelmingly white electorate in Iowa or New Hampshire.

What’s behind Warren’s surge? A visit to Iowa shows how she manages to combine an emotional punch with attention to detail.

Bierman took a deep look at Warren’s long path from Oklahoma to Harvard.

ELSEWHERE IN THE CAMPAIGN

Meantime, the Ukraine scandal is also serving as a test of Biden’s claim he can go toe-to-toe with Trump. Janet Hook and Evan Halper looked at how the former vice president is handling Trump’s unfounded accusations. Democratic strategists give him a mixed grade so far.

Jaweed Kaleem looked at why many Muslims treat Sen. Bernie Sanders like a rock star.

Melanie Mason and Tyrone Beason checked in on one of the rituals of the Iowa campaign season — the steak fry.

And Sen. Cory Booker may leave the presidential race soon if he doesn’t hit a fundraising goal by the end of the month, his campaign warned. The warning was partially an effort to motivate donors to give now, but it underscored a reality for all the second-tier candidates: Time is running out quickly. The third-quarter financial reports could mark the end of the line for more than one Democratic hopeful.

TRUMP AND CALIFORNIA

Our poll showed Trump is on track for a level of defeat in California not seen since the Civil War for a Republican candidate. And the administration has clearly decided that beating up on the state and its liberal officialdom is politically better than trying to make nice.

This week, Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler denounced the state for “failing” to meet water pollution standards. As Anna Phillips reported, the accusation involves pollution problems the state has worked on for years, many of which have been worsened by the administration’s efforts to roll back regulations.

The water pollution announcement followed an EPA threat to cut California’s highway funds over Clean Air Act violations, as Phillips, Alexa Diaz and Tony Barboza reported.

Meantime, the state sued the administration over its rollback of Endangered Species Act protections.

In another move that’s likely to be unpopular in California, the administration moved to once again cut the number of refugees the U.S. accepts. As O’Toole wrote, the new level will be 18,000 for next year. That’s down from 110,000 in President Obama’s final year in office.

THE WORLD OF DIPLOMACY

As controversy swirled around his presidency, Trump was at the U.N. this week. He criticized China and Iran in a subdued speech to the General Assembly, Tracy Wilkinson, Bierman and Megerian reported. And he skipped most of the U.N. climate summit for a speech on religious freedom.

The president isn’t the only member of his family pursuing diplomatic goals. Wilkinson looked at how Ivanka Trump brings “star power” to global women’s empowerment, which she’s adopted as an issue. But is her involvement helping women?

THE MEDICAL COST TRAP

Trying to shop for medical care? Lots of luck with that, Noam Levey writes. Experts thought that by increasing insurance deductibles, they could get more consumers to shop around and thereby lower costs. But it turns out that shopping for medical care is almost impossible.

CURSING THEIR LUCK?

A lot of candidates have taken up swearing in public and are cursing a blue streak, Barabak wrote. Maybe they’re just upset at losing.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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david.lauter@latimes.com


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