OP-ED: Will more Americans call for impeachment?

Editorial board
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

The phone call that rocked Donald Trump’s presidency has become the testimony that could wreck it — if Americans become convinced Trump deserves to be impeached and removed from office for his Ukraine misdeeds.

On Wednesday, Ambassador Gordon Sondland provided Democrats on the House impeachment panel with compelling testimony about Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The gist of Sondland’s story: Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, held out the promise of a politically valuable visit to the White House if Zelenskiy said his government would investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Sondland confirmed the Democratic premise of a “quid pro quo” involving a White House visit for Zelenskiy. However, Sondland, a Trump donor and the ambassador to the European Union, did not confirm with direct knowledge the Democrats’ supposition that Trump also suspended $400 million in military aid to Ukraine as part of his Ukraine gambit. Asked if he could testify that Trump schemed to withhold the aid in exchange for investigating the Bidens, Sondland said that was “my own presumption.”

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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Since September, when a whistleblower’s alert led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to launch an impeachment inquiry, we’ve rejected Trump’s assertion that his July phone call with Zelenskiy was “perfect.” No, it was improper and, as we wrote on Sept. 25, “reflected dreadful judgment by the president … Trump was wrong to make that request. He asked the leader of another government to take actions that could undercut a leading Democratic candidate for president.”

Democrats argue that Trump sold out the office of the presidency for personal political gain. With Sondland they got the blockbuster on-camera witness they wanted — someone working for Trump who confirmed the existence of a quid pro quo. It will be harder now for Trump and his allies to claim there was nothing amiss in the president’s interactions with Ukraine. Or rather, Trump can continue to insist he’s the victim of another witch hunt, but his audience for that argument is likely to shrink. At the same time, chances grow for impeachment and subsequent trial in the Senate.

We don’t know how indignantly Americans will respond to Wednesday’s testimony. A Politico/Morning Consult survey conducted online Nov. 15-17 — among a national sample of 1,994 registered voters — showed a slight decline in support for the impeachment inquiry over the past week. The survey, with a margin of error of 2%, found that support for the investigation inched down 2 points — to 48% from 50%, while opposition to the inquiry ticked up 3 points to 45% from 42%. Maybe that trend reverses post-Sondland, who ruined Trump’s week.

For many impeachment supporters, proof of a quid pro quo would constitute evidence that the president abused power and deserves to be thrown out of office. Many of his partisans would acknowledge the former but reject the latter. Wednesday’s testimony, though, will embolden Democrats to keep recruiting converts to their cause. “We now can see the veneer has been torn away,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. Sondland’s testimony “goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery, as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”

To impeach and convict is to use a political process to overturn an election. The public will play a large role influencing how members of Congress act. If Trump stays in office, the public will have another chance to render a judgment: on Election Day 2020.