Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, decided this week to open a formal inquiry into the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump. The surprise move — Pelosi had long refused to take that step — followed revelations about a July phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, president of Ukraine, that appeared to encourage foreign intervention in U.S. elections to benefit himself, and using the resources of the United States government to pressure Zelenskiy to do so. That, in conjunction with attempts to cover up that conversation, looks like grounds for impeachment.
At present, there is little reason to think that Trump will be removed from office even if the House votes to impeach. The Senate is controlled by Republicans and they remain steadfastly behind the president. Nevertheless, the process will have political and policy implications. Japan must be prepared for the impacts.
Progressives in the Democratic Party have been pushing Pelosi to open an impeachment inquiry since the 2018 midterm election that returned the House to their party’s control. Pelosi resisted. Her top priority is ensuring an enduring Democratic majority in the House and that meant protecting the seats of moderates — the majority of which flipped to her party in that ballot.
Some hoped that the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and obstruction of justice by the Trump administration might move voters to favor impeachment, but the probe fizzled and made no appreciable impact on public opinion. They also worried that such a move would animate Trump’s supporters while turning off moderates and independents.
Last week, that calculus changed with reports of a whistleblower complaint that charged Trump with pressing Zelenskiy to open an investigation into Joe Biden, the candidate leading in polls to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 2020 election, and his son Hunter, who had business dealings in Ukraine, and accused the administration of covering up that effort. The allegation that Trump sought to use U.S. foreign policy — withholding military aid to Ukraine — to advance his personal interests and a subsequent systematic effort to obscure those facts tipped the balance for the speaker and many Democrats who had been on the fence.
That shift has been facilitated by the absence of any evidence to support charges of corruption against either Biden or his son and by the fact that the president’s explanation for decisions regarding Ukraine change daily. The shift was made easier by Trump’s decision to release the memorandum of the phone call, which appeared to confirm the whistleblower’s account. In the latest tally, 223 Democrats — a majority of the House — and one independent back some form of impeachment inquiry. Significantly, that is not necessarily support for impeachment.
Pragmatists insist that impeachment is risky since the GOP has a majority in the Senate and it will protect Trump no matter what the House does. That assumes that the revelations do not get worse. The whistleblower complaint notes that other presidential conversations have also been buried, hinting of more evidence of malfeasance and cover-up.
An impeachment inquiry will intensify the ill will, chaos, confusion and anger that dominate U.S. politics. Trump, who is not known for linear thinking in the best of times, will be even more distracted. History has shown that he does not believe in contrition or apologies and when challenged he doubles down. In this atmosphere, it is hard to envision the U.S. government accomplishing anything during the remainder of his term. Every issue will become more political and more bitterly contested.
Trump will be looking for ways to rise above the morass. One possibility is another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the long-anticipated trip by Trump to Pyongyang. A deal with China is another option, but it could be that Trump prefers the trade war to reinforce his claim that Beijing seeks his defeat because he is too tough. Both have profound implications for Japan, but Tokyo must be ready for tough fights on issues of more direct concern. Expect renewed demands from Trump on trade issues — the recently announced deal does not include a U.S. pledge to abandon tariffs on automobiles — and on host nation support for U.S. military forces in Japan, negotiations for which begin in earnest in coming months.
Trump will use those issues — and more — to argue that he is fighting hard for U.S. interests and criticism is from constituencies that have failed to defend the country from foreign predations. Far from being impeachable, he will insist his behavior justifies a second term in office. That divergence of views — wide and widening — defines U.S. politics. It is the soil in which any impeachment inquiry will proceed.