DONALD TRUMP’S style of political crisis-management is straightforward: admit nothing, counter-attack, obfuscate, ride it out and wait for public attention to wane. That got him through the release of the Access Hollywood tape—on which he boasted about grabbing women between the legs a month before the 2016 election—and also through Robert Mueller’s report, which identified acts that could amount to obstruction of justice. But past success is no guarantee of future performance.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, announced on September 24th that the House was beginning a formal impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump over allegations that he abused his power by encouraging Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to investigate Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm, and his father Joe, a front-runner in the Democratic primaries. Since then, Mr Trump himself has seemed rattled. He has decried impeachment as “a COUP intended to take away the Power of the People” (in fact, it is a constitutional process that would leave America with a Republican president if it removed Mr Trump).
He has demanded that Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, should be “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason” for unfavourably paraphrasing his phone call with Mr Zelensky (legislative immunity protects Mr Schiff). He has spoken darkly of “a Civil War-like fracture in this nation” if he is removed from office. He has warned that he is “trying to find out” the identity of the whistleblower whose complaint inspired the impeachment inquiry—and whose anonymity federal law protects. He has falsely claimed that whistleblower rules changed just before this one acted—drawing a rare public rebuke from the intelligence community inspector-general. And he accused Mr Schiff, without evidence, of helping to write the whistleblower’s complaint.
The number of officials drawn into the inquiry is growing. On October 2nd Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, said that he was on the phone call between Messrs Trump and Zelensky; he has also been subpoenaed. House Democrats are looking into Rick Perry, the energy secretary, who travelled to Ukraine in May. They are also interested in William Barr, the attorney-general, whose Justice Department initially blocked the release of the whistleblower’s complaint, and who has emerged as a central figure in Mr Trump’s efforts to enlist foreign governments’ help in investigating Mr Biden. The House has also subpoenaed Rudy Giuliani, one of Mr Trump’s personal lawyers, for documents and communications related to Ukraine.
So far no House Republicans have backed Ms Pelosi’s inquiry, instead offering circumstantial arguments—the whistleblower was not on the call, there was no direct quid pro quo, the call was consistent with American concerns about corruption in Ukraine—none of which amounts to a full-throated defence of the president. Mr Trump, meanwhile, has used the threat of impeachment to turbocharge fundraising. In the days after Ms Pelosi’s announcement his campaign may have pulled in as much as $13m and, according to his campaign manager, at least 50,000 new donors.
Conventional wisdom says that Senate Republicans are Mr Trump’s bulwark—that 20 Republicans will never cross party lines and vote for removal, even if the Democrat-controlled House impeaches. That will probably hold. Although Republican senators will happily trash Mr Trump off the record, so far only Mitt Romney and Ben Sasse have approached publicly rebuking the president; Mr Romney said he was “deeply troubled” by Mr Trump’s behaviour.
But politicians respond to public opinion. A YouGov/Economist poll released on October 2nd showed that half of all registered voters, including 11% of Republicans, believe the House should “try to impeach” Mr Trump, and 51% of voters, including 13% of Republicans, think that if the House impeaches Mr Trump, the Senate should vote to remove him from office. Over two-thirds of registered voters believe that abuse of power and obstruction of justice warrant removal. These polls doubtless set Democratic hearts aflutter. But broad support for the notion that Mr Trump’s conduct was impeachable is not enough to convince a critical mass of Republican senators. Mr Trump often turns politics into a loyalty test. And Republicans usually let him have his way.