US speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Picture: AFP/SAUL LOEB
US speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Picture: AFP/SAUL LOEB

Washington — US House speaker Nancy Pelosi has set her Democrat Party in motion on a rapid path to the impeachment of US President Donald Trump, a timetable that fits with both her political imperatives and those of the president.

Judiciary committee Democrats will be working through the weekend and by next Thursday could begin to draft the articles of impeachment that will shape the debate in a Senate trial that likely will be held early in 2020.

The next formal step is a hearing on Monday in which counsels for both parties on the intelligence and judiciary committees will lay out the findings of the investigations.

As Democrats decide what to charge the president with, they could begin voting on specific articles as soon as Thursday, judiciary committee officials said. The entire House could vote the following week, just before Congress is set to break for the holidays.

Pelosi insists that she’s set no deadlines and that her decision to move ahead has nothing to do with political considerations. But lawmakers in both parties have their eye on the electoral calendar.

“We are trying to be sensitive to the fact that it is going to spill over into an election year. And we’re trying to wrap it up before that happens here in the House to give the Senate the opportunity to set its own timetable,” said Democrat representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a member of the oversight committee. “The calendar is what it is.”

Pelosi dismissed a question about whether she was concerned about those lawmakers facing a backlash from voters in 2020

Trump, who is almost certain to be acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate, is also eager to put impeachment in the rear-view mirror. “If you are going to impeach me, do it now, fast, so we can have a fair trial in the Senate, and so that our Country can get back to business,” the president said in a pair of tweets on Thursday morning.

The election for the White House and control of Congress is less than a year away. With the impeachment process wrapped up as he campaigns for re-election, Trump would be able tout his likely acquittal by the Senate and focus on his agenda rather responding to the steady onslaught of damaging testimony and documents.

Pelosi said at a CNN townhall on Thursday night that the impeachment drive isn’t about politics “at all”. “I don’t think the 2020 election will ride on this,” Pelosi said, adding that the biggest issue in the campaign will be health care.

Among Democrats, there is clear sensitivity to attempts by Trump and Republicans to paint Pelosi and her party as obsessed with impeachment at the expense of passing legislation that would benefit the country.

At a news conference on Thursday after her announcement directing that articles of impeachment be drawn up, Pelosi cited the 275 bi-partisan pieces of legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled House and languishing in the Senate.

She and other Democrat leaders announced they would be bringing their long-awaited, drug-pricing bill to a vote next week.

Trade deal

Pelosi has also been working with the Trump administration to finish the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on trade that the president has made a priority. Some Democrats in Republican-leaning areas have warned party leaders that Trump has been successful in convincing rural voters that the faltering farm economy is being caused by a delay with the USMCA rather than his trade war that prompted China to cut agricultural purchases.

Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa wrote to Pelosi on Thursday urging quick passage of the agreement. “Trade is fundamental to the state of Iowa,” she said. “I urge you to finalise the agreement before the end of the year.”

Pelosi’s House majority depends in large measure on re-electing the 31 Democrats like Axne who represent districts won by Trump in 2016. Disposing of impeachment clears the way for them to focus on legislation their constituents say they care more about.

At a news conference at the Capitol, Pelosi dismissed a question about whether she was concerned about those lawmakers facing a backlash from voters in 2020, when every House seat will be on the ballot. “It isn’t about politics, partisanship, Democrats and Republicans. That’s totally insignificant. It’s about the president not honouring his oath of office. So no, I’m not concerned.”

Public support

An official familiar with Pelosi’s thinking said that while Democrats aim to make a compelling case for Trump’s impeachment to voters, there is also acknowledgment that the public may have limited patience with prolonging the process.

The weeks of testimony at public hearings conducted by Democrats haven’t budged public opinion on impeachment. Poll averages compiled by FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics both show Americans evenly divided with roughly 47% to 48% supporting impeachment, and 44% to 45% opposing it. What’s more, some individual polls have found that more than eight in 10 people say their minds are made up.

Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina was among the Republicans who said the Democrats’ timetable is an acknowledgment of that. “The polling gets worse as time goes on,” he said.

Ukraine focus

Democrats are focusing on Trump’s actions in dealing with Ukraine. They allege the president withheld almost $400m in security assistance to pressure the Kiev government into announcing an investigation involving Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, the former vice-president, to benefit Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Democrats are working towards at least three articles of impeachment related to Ukraine: abuse of power, bribery and obstruction.

The impeachment inquiry could wait out several court cases that may produce evidence for separate charges or produce additional witnesses, but Democratic lawmakers said moving on impeachment now keeps the focus on what they say are clear violations in the Ukraine matter, rather than muddying the case with other allegations. That makes explaining things to their constituents easier and keeps the party united.

“I think there’s also broad agreement that we’re going to follow a tried and true prosecutorial method, which is you put the best, strongest case you have in front of the juror. And that’s Ukraine,” Connolly said.

“I think it’s time to move forward on this,” said Representative Chrissy Houlahan, a moderate from the swing state of Pennsylvania, who was elected in the 2018 Democratic wave. “You could not put it all together more effectively.”

And Representative Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, another swing state, said, “I think memories are short and it is good to take care of this now.”

Bloomberg