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At Long Last, Launch: Impeachment May Gain Momentum From First Big Moment

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gavels the close of the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gavels the close of the vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

How big a deal was this week's House vote formalizing the ongoing impeachment inquiry against President Trump?

It could be quite a big deal indeed.

As has been noted, the vote opens the impeachment inquiry to public view and responds to complaints about its secrecy. The vote also may, in the view of legal scholars, strengthen the case for courts to enforce congressional subpoenas that have been issued — or soon will be.

But there may be even more to this moment than that. The vote in the House may focus public awareness on what is going on. It may be the event that gives many Americans the sense they need to start paying attention.

Up to now, the impeachment inquiry against Trump has been afloat without ever having been launched. There seemed to be no defining moment that demanded the public engage.

There had been a whistleblower complaint and a partial transcript of a phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine. Both could be read as damning, even dramatically so. But both were documents. To be outraged, you probably had to read them. Most people didn't.

Some had felt the chill of history in real time on Sept. 24, when on a Tuesday afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House would commence a formal impeachment inquiry into the whistleblower and the phone call.

This was meant to dispel the fog of words around various probes happening in several committees concerning what might be impeachable offenses (including instances of obstruction of justice identified when special counsel Robert Mueller made his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election).

But all that talk of impeachable this and that had been confusing and vague, especially to those with lots else on their minds. After all, some Democrats had been referring to impeachment practically since Trump took office — not to mention the chatter on cable TV and social media.

There had been nothing like the thunderclap in September 1998. That's when a flotilla of black SUVs came to the Capitol bearing the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, with 18 boxes of evidence, and President Bill Clinton's impeachment became all but inevitable.

Two days later, the House voted to accept the fruit of Starr's lengthy labors, and within the next few days, the House began releasing evidence (including a videotape of grand jury testimony). Thousands of pages were released before the House, a full month later, the House authorized a full impeachment inquiry.

In the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, the moment that riveted the nation was the so-called "Saturday Night Massacre" in October 1973, when Nixon forced out both his attorney general and his deputy attorney general in order to rid himself of special prosecutor Archibald Cox. The TV networks went to live special coverage over the weekend.

Congress convened the following Tuesday with a flurry of impeachment motions, referring them to the Judiciary Committee, and its relatively new chairman, Peter Rodino of New Jersey, who announced there would be "formal preparations for impeachment proceedings."

The House Judiciary Committee of that time, led by a deliberate and cautious Rodino, began staffing up and issuing subpoenas, and it held some closed-door sessions. But it would not have a formal authorization resolution from the full House until February 1974 and did not enact its process procedures until May 1974.

But those procedural authorizing votes would never be the headline events people remembered about the Nixon saga, coming so long after the events that really kicked the process into gear. They do not even appear in most timelines of Nixon's long fall.

The same was true in the Clinton impeachment. The authorizing votes were afterthoughts compared to Starr's report and testimony. In his own memoir, Contempt, Starr dwells on his report and live testimony at length and does not even mention an authorizing vote in the House.

But in the present instance, there was been nothing comparable to a Starr report with its salacious details of Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. There has been nothing like the gut punch of the Saturday Night Massacre. So this week's debate on the House floor, and the vote to authorize formal proceedings going forward, may well have a different order of significance.

The vote certainly goes beyond Pelosi's Sept. 24 announcement, the whistleblower complaint and the transcript. And it goes beyond the wave of testimony backing up the complaint that has come from State Department and National Security Council professionals with insider knowledge of the Ukraine relationship broadly and Trump's call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in particular.

None of these steady drip-drip developments had quite become The Moment, the seminal event that moved the story into the category it clearly has entered now.

But with this week's 232-196 vote, impeachment inquiry is happening. In the shorthand of the news reporting world, the first "impeachment vote" has happened. Of course, this is only the beginning, and approval of actual articles of impeachment may be months away. But for those who had hoped all this would simply go away, those hopes are dashed.

Important as all the testimony gathered behind closed doors may prove in a legal sense, its main political impact thus far was probably in uniting the Democratic caucus. In the end, all but two of the chamber's 234 Democrats supported Pelosi and the inquiry.

In the next phase, the popular standing of impeachment will largely depend on the impact of witnesses in open hearings. And this week's vote is what will make those hearings happen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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