/5 ways the Trump impeachment inquiry will loom large at Tuesdays Democratic debate

5 ways the Trump impeachment inquiry will loom large at Tuesdays Democratic debate

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President Donald Trump slammed Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, at his campaign rally in Minnesota.
USA TODAY

Twelve Democratic 2020 candidates will crowd the stage in Westerville, Ohio, on Tuesday for the biggest presidential debate of the election cycle.

The debate is expected to mark the return to the campaign trail for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who suffered a heart attack this month and has limited his once-grueling campaign travel after falling ill. The moment offers the 78-year-old senator from Vermont a chance to try to assuage voter concerns about his health.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, comes to Ohio amid a string of polls that shows her support surging with likely Democratic primary voters. With her exalted status, Warren is likely to take more fire from her fellow Democratic rivals.

But the biggest storyline of the Ohio debate could revolve around how the candidates talk about the fast-moving, 3-week-old impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

Here are five ways the inquiry will loom large over the debate.

1)  Can Joe Biden effectively punch back against Trump?

The Trump impeachment inquiry was put in motion after a member of the intelligence community filed a whistleblower’s complaint raising concerns that the president was pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter over the younger Biden’s business dealings in the Eastern European country.

Biden has bristled at Trump’s attacks. Trump has pushed the unsubstantiated allegation that the reason Biden, while he was vice president, pushed the Ukrainian government to fire its top prosecutor was to thwart an investigation of Burisma Holdings and to benefit Hunter Biden, who served on Burisma’s board. No public evidence has surfaced to support that claim.

Several recent national polls show that a plurality, and in some cases a majority, of Americans support the launch of an impeachment inquiry of Trump. A Quinnipiac University poll published this month found that by a 48% to 42% margin Americans think that “asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival” is, by itself, a sufficient reason to remove a president from office.

Impeachment polls: Nearly 3 weeks into the Trump impeachment inquiry, polls show a shift in public opinion

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USA TODAY/Ipsos poll: Perilous times for Trump: By 45%-38%, Americans support impeaching him over Ukraine allegations, poll finds

But the situation seems to also have hampered Biden. 

By a 42% to 21% margin, Americans say there are valid reasons to look at the behavior of Joe and Hunter Biden in Ukraine, according to a USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll published this month.

And more Democrats say they are somewhat satisfied (47%) than very satisfied (29%) with how Biden has responded to Trump’s assertions about him and Ukraine, according to CBS News poll published Sunday. Eighteen percent of Democratic respondents said they were somewhat dissatisfied and 6% said they were very dissatisfied with Biden’s response.

“No one has asserted that my son did a single thing wrong,” Biden grumbled to reporters following a labor forum in Iowa Sunday. “No one has asserted that I did anything wrong except the lying president.”

Biden’s campaign aides have complained that too much media attention has been given to the Trump allegations.

The debate offers the former vice president a prime opportunity to make his case to directly to voters about why they shouldn’t pay attention to the noise.

2)  Will Democratic rivals continue to go easy on Hunter Biden’s business dealings?

It wouldn’t be surprising if the CNN and New York Times moderators quiz candidates on whether the younger Biden’s business in Ukraine, as well as China, amounted to a conflict of interest for the vice president. Biden played a key role in shaping the Obama administration’s policies in those two countries.

Ahead of the debate, Biden has sought to blunt the issue.

The former vice president said Sunday if he is elected president, no one in his family will hold a job or have a business relationship with a foreign corporation or foreign government. He also jabbed at Trump for appointing his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to senior adviser positions.

“No one in my family will have an office in the White House, will sit in on meetings as if they are a cabinet member, will, in fact, have any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or a foreign country,” Biden said. “Period. Period. End of story.”

Biden vows no conflicts of interest: Joe Biden: ‘No one in my family will have an office in the White House’ or be ‘a cabinet member’ if I’m president

Hunter Biden, through a statement from his attorney, on Sunday also said that he would step down from his seat on the board of a private equity firm in China by the end of this month and vowed not to serve on any boards of foreign companies if his father’s elected.

He acknowledged in an interview with ABC News that aired Tuesday that he probably wouldn’t have been picked to serve on Burisma’s board if his last name wasn’t Biden, but insisted he did nothing improper.

“I joined a board, I served honorably…I focused on corporate governance,” Hunter Biden said. “I didn’t have any discussions with my father before or after I joined the board as it related to it, other than that brief exchange that we had.”

The VP’s son: Hunter Biden will resign from board of Chinese firm, says he won’t serve on foreign boards if Joe Biden elected president

Prior to Biden’s comments, Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar as well as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke all said they wouldn’t allow their family members to sit on boards of foreign companies, but they have only allowed the gentlest of criticism of the Bidens.

“I just do not think that children of presidents, of vice presidents during an administration should be out there doing that,” Booker offered in a recent CNN interview.

Thus far in the primary season, attacks on Biden have backfired or provided limited payoff for those who have attempted taking him on directly.

But more than half the field is hovering in the low-single digit percentages in early voting and national polls. And with the DNC toughening the polling and donor thresholds to make November debate, a candidate at the back of the pack might see raising concerns about Hunter Biden as a risk worth taking. 

More: Analysis: Why Julian Castro’s attack on Joe Biden’s age fell flat at Democratic debate

3) It’s about more than impeachment

Candidates will try to demonstrate that they can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Expect to hear candidates about talk about the importance of Congress doing its oversight work and moving forward with the impeachment proceeding. But at the same time, they’ll all offer some version of their similar campaign platitude: This election is about more than ousting Trump.

Shannon Watts, founder of the gun control advocacy group Mom’s Demand Action, said it’s frustrating that impeachment is saturating national media attention.

But she said she believed the Democratic candidates would be mindful of keeping the focus on core issues, including advocating for tightening gun laws, if they hope to improve their standing with female voters.

“For our issue, if you look at polling, it’s the No. 1 issue for suburban women regardless of political party,” Watts said in an interview.

Since Pelosi opened the impeachment inquiry, Trump has accused his Democratic opponents of using impeachment as a desperate move to try to defeat him.

The polls show a growing support for impeachment among Americans, but the electorate is craving more from its politicians, said Kelly Dietrich, CEO of the National Democratic Training Committee, an organization that trains Democrats on how to run for office and work on campaigns.

“You can’t let impeachment take over everything,” Dietrich said. “The Democrats challenge in general is to hold Trump and Republicans accountable but to tie it to the bread-and-butter issues that are impacting Americans from health care and clean air to all the things that really effect day-to-day lives.” 

4) Tom Steyer, an early impeachment backer, joins the stage

Steyer, the billionaire investor and clean energy advocate, will make his first debate appearance in Westerville.

He didn’t jump into the race until July, but he has been pressing lawmakers to begin the process to remove Trump from office since founding the group Need to Impeach in October 2017. He’s pumped millions into the project that had the singular goal of removing Trump from office.

In television and digital ads in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Steyer has been trumpeting that he was ahead of the curve among his Democratic rivals in pushing for impeachment.

“When I called for his impeachment two years ago, Washington insiders and every candidate for president said it was too soon,” Steyer says in the early voting state ads. “I believed then, as I do now, that doing the right thing was more important than political calculations.”

Steyer to make debate stage debut: Tom Steyer has been pushing impeachment for years. Now it’s center stage for his first debate

5)  Candidates aware of perils of impeachment inquiry

An already divided nation is in danger of more partisanship as the impeachment inquiry moves along.

The debate marks another opportunity for the Democratic hopefuls to attest to why they can reunite a country that Trump has suggested would tumble into “civil war” if he’s removed from office.

With Republicans in control of the Senate, the odds are long that the upper chamber, at least at this point, would convict Trump should the House vote to impeach him.

Even as polling shows growing American support for the impeachment process, the vast majority, 58% to 37%, think that Trump’s fate should be left to the voters when they head to the polls in less than 13 months, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll published last week.

Candidates face a balancing act in their messaging on the issue.

“Look, this is not something you can do by poll,” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg told CNN.”This is a constitutional process to protect the integrity of the presidency itself. It’s not just about holding Donald Trump accountable for abuses of power – it’s about making sure that a future president, 10 years or a hundred years from now, looks back at this moment and draws the lesson that nobody is above the law. And at a moment like that, public opinion is just going to have to follow the lead of the Constitution, instead of the other way around.”

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