Will televised Trump impeachment hearings convince Americans that he should be removed from office?

Andrew RomanoWest Coast Correspondent

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After weeks of closed-door testimony, public impeachment proceedings against President Trump will begin Wednesday. But will they change public opinion?

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That’s certainly what Democrats are hoping. Nancy Pelosi and colleagues have carefully controlled the narrative that’s trickled out so far, and the structure of the upcoming public hearings — sustained questioning from House Intelligence Committee lawyers rather than five-minute spasms of political grandstanding — will allow Chairman Adam Schiff to continue to exercise as much influence as possible. 

The issue is how actual voters watching along on TV (or catching up via the news or social media) will react, and how their reaction will affect Trump’s fate — including the final impeachment vote in the Senate.

History suggests the answer lies in whether the televised phase of Trump’s impeachment process ends up looking more like Richard Nixon’s or Bill Clinton’s.

Since the initial Ukraine revelations, America’s attitude toward Trump and impeachment has held remarkably steady. Right before the whistleblower news broke in late September, about 51 percent of Americans opposed the general idea of impeachment, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average; about 40 percent supported it. Within days, however, those numbers had flip-flopped, and for the past month, support has hovered between 48 and 50 percent, while opposition has been stuck around 43 or 44 percent.

President Trump and a House Intelligence Committee hearing. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump and a House Intelligence Committee hearing. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Yet hidden within those stats are more specific numbers that tell a larger story — and it’s a story Democrats will be trying to rewrite as they take their case to TV. When pollsters ask about impeachment, they tend to ask two kinds of questions: one, Do you support or oppose the impeachment process? and two, Do you support or oppose actually impeaching and/or removing Trump from office?  

A majority of Americans have favored the process all along; the latest FiveThirtyEight average is 51 percent who support it versus 42.8 percent who are opposed. But the share of the public that supports impeaching and/or removing Trump — the former would require a majority vote in the House; the latter would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate — has been significantly lower. As of today, for instance, only 47.2 percent support impeaching and/or removing Trump; 45 percent are opposed.  

In other words, a sizable number of Americans — about 4 or 5 percent — are impeachment-curious. They’re approaching the impeachment inquiry with an open mind. We’re OK with these hearings, they’re telling pollsters. But we’re waiting to see what they reveal before we decide whether Trump should be impeached and/or removed from office.

If Democrats can use televised hearings to persuade these voters to back impeachment and/or removal, they’ll have a majority of the country behind them.

Over 51 nights between May and November 1973, millions of Americans flipped on their televisions at 8 p.m. Eastern time and watched nearly 250 hours of “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of Senate Watergate Committee hearings — a primetime political soap opera that often extended well past midnight and unfolded like “a kind of extended morality play,” as one PBS anchor put it at the time.

A hearing of the Senate select committee on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, May 18, 1973. (Photo: AP)
A hearing of the Senate select committee on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, May 18, 1973. (Photo: AP)

The more Americans learned, the more they turned against the president. In June 1973, right after the televised hearings began, only 19 percent of Americans told Gallup that Nixon should be impeached and removed from office. By November, after the so-called Saturday Night Massacre, that number had ticked up to 38 percent. Over the same period, Nixon’s approval rating fell from 45 percent to 27 percent. He never recovered, and he resigned the following August. 

In contrast, the televised phase of Clinton’s impeachment hearings fell flat. Held during the lame-duck session after the 1998 midterms, the entire affair basically consisted of Republicans and Democrats pontificating for the cameras. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr had issued his namesake report several months earlier; no new evidence was unveiled in the House. Voters had already decided how they felt about Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and throughout the entire process public sentiment barely budged, with polls showing only a quarter to a third of Americans in favor of impeachment.

And so with the TV cameras about to turn on again — and with Americans about to tune in — Democrats are left hoping for a Nixon repeat; Trump and his allies are aiming to pull a Clinton.

A couple watches the NBC Jumbotron in Times Square display the "not guilty" verdict on obstruction of justice charges against President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial on Feb. 12, 1999. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)
A couple watches the NBC Jumbotron in Times Square display the "not guilty" verdict on obstruction of justice charges against President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial on Feb. 12, 1999. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Neither side, however, should set its sights too high. If all goes well for them, Democrats might persuade a majority to back impeachment and removal — but unless that majority is much, much bigger than the bare 51 percent that now favors the impeachment process, it’s hard to imagine that they can persuade 20 Republican senators to actually convict and remove the president. The best-case scenario for Democrats may simply be claiming moral justification heading into the 2020 elections.

Trump, meanwhile, should be careful what he wishes for. For Clinton, maintaining the status quo throughout televised impeachment hearings meant preserving an astronomically high job-approval rating that topped out at 71 percent on the day the House approved articles of impeachment. For Trump, the status quo is far less friendly. Right now, 54.4 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance. Only 41.3 percent approve. Whatever else happens, it seems unlikely that televised impeachment hearings will persuade more Americans to approve of him — and the longer those numbers stay the same, the harder it will be for him to win reelection.

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