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The Political Stakes Trump And Democrats Face As Impeachment Inquiry Accelerates


The 2020 election is just 13 months away. And that means it will loom large over the House impeachment inquiry into the president. To talk about the political stakes for both Democrats and Republicans, we're joined by NPR's Mara Liasson.

Welcome back to the studio.


CORNISH: This is only an investigation at this point. But if it winds up with the House moving to impeach the president and sending the matter to the Senate for a trial, what does that mean politically?

LIASSON: Well, that is the big debate that everyone's trying to figure out. Currently, no one thinks the president can be convicted by the Senate. You need 20 Republicans to flip on that. And Republicans certainly think that if he is acquitted in the Senate, it will help him win reelection in 2020. A lot of Democrats actually agree with that, especially Democrats in red states, where Democrats are running for reelection. They think that American voters generally like to decide for themselves whether American presidents should be removed from office or not.

But there is also another camp of Democrats who think it will be valuable to put moderate Republicans on record, whether they're in the House or Senate, as to whether they think this - the president's behavior in this matter was correct.

CORNISH: Now, we just heard a few minutes ago from Republican Andy Harris, defending the president. What do you think it shows about what's going through the minds of Republicans more broadly?

LIASSON: Well, I think you can hear from Congressman Harris, he wants the focus to be on these unfounded allegations against the Bidens. And Republicans are hoping that the silver lining of this scandal is that that's what people start paying attention to. Other Republicans are saying this is a nothing burger, that it's not as dramatic as people expected. Pat Toomey, who is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, a battleground state, issued a statement today that I thought was the perfect kind of lily pad for Republicans to land on. He said, the call was inappropriate - the way he talked about Joe Biden to the Ukrainian president - but because there was no specific quid pro quo, this isn't impeachable. So not a very ringing endorsement but I think that that's what most Republicans will focus on. There was no specific direct quid pro quo, as in, I'm holding up this money until you do this. That clearly was implied over and over again in that conversation, but he didn't say the words.

CORNISH: Now, there is an analysis out there that says that Democrats think this will be like 1974, when Republicans effectively abandoned Richard Nixon. And he ended up resigning just in the face of impeachment - right? - while Republicans think that this will be like '98, when Bill Clinton was acquitted, and Democrats stayed with him. How is this very different from those episodes?

LIASSON: Well, every one of these impeachment episodes is unique. And historical rules only work until they stop working. But it's hard to see - because we're so tribal now, it's hard to see how any Republicans in the Senate would flip like they did in 1974. But this episode is unique because it's simple, and Trump was kind of caught in the act. He's the president. He's in the White House. He's having this phone call. Everyone can read this and decide for themselves whether or not this was an abuse of power.

CORNISH: All right, now the Democrats are starting down this road. Will it be all that consumes Congress until the election?

LIASSON: I think it's going to be a lot of what consumes Congress. The bottom line on this is that no one really knows how this will play out. And that's what's so extraordinary about this. The decision by Nancy Pelosi was not made out of some sophisticated political calculation, where she knew exactly how this would end up. She was forced by seven freshmen Democrats who took a political risk. Those seven moderate Democrats were not hearing a clamor from their constituents to impeach the president. They felt if they didn't take a stand, they would be undermining and diminishing the power of the Article I branch of government and saying that this kind of behavior is OK.

So now we have an epic battle about checks and balances and separations of power. And one of the other questions I'm hearing from a lot of people is, is there a way that Nancy Pelosi can land this impeachment plane anywhere but the Senate tarmac, where it will certainly be destroyed? In other words, is there something short of impeachment, like censure, that won't give Trump the political win of an acquittal in the Senate? And I don't know the answer to that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.