CNN —  

On Monday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler announced that he was beginning a broad-scale investigation into Donald Trump’s business and political life, the first step in a slow but purposeful attempt by congressional Democrats to build an impeachment case against the President.

Nadler, in an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” was open about the strategy. “We do not now have the evidence all sorted out and everything to do an impeachment,” he said. “Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen.”

That persuasion campaign began in earnest Monday, with Nadler issuing more than six dozen letters to various Trump administration officials, business partners and campaign officials, seeking answers to a wide variety of questions. The questions deal with, among other topics: potential obstruction of justice, hush money payments to two women alleging affairs with Trump, potential collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign and violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

As Axios’ Mike Allen wrote in his Monday newsletter:

“In an investigation being coordinated among six to eight House committees, Trump will essentially be on public trial for months to come, with topics that include abuse of power, obstruction of justice, conflicts of interest (including profit from the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue) and money laundering.”

That this “public trial” is being led by Nadler – and the Judiciary Committee – is no coincidence. The impeachment process – if it happens – would run through that same Judiciary Committee and be overseen by Nadler.

This is a testing ground.

It’s also an acknowledgment by Democrats that impeachment is a purely political – not legal – process that requires persuasion. This isn’t about convincing a jury or a judge. This is about convincing the American people, who then, theoretically, pressure their representatives in Congress. (The last time Congress impeached a president without public buy-in – in 1998 – the impeachment backfired badly against the Republicans who had pursued it.)

One person who has long grasped that a) impeachment, not indictment, is the real threat to the President and b) impeachment only happens if the court of public opinion wants it to happen is one Donald John Trump.

For much of the past 18 months, Trump has railed against his own Justice Department, describing the ongoing special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election as a witch hunt and a hoax. He has savaged Robert Mueller and his special counsel team as “angry” Democrats trying to relitigate the election. (Mueller is a registered Republican who ran the FBI for a decade under one Democratic and one Republican president.)

“Presidential Harassment by ‘crazed’ Democrats at the highest level in the history of our Country,” Trump tweeted Sunday night of the Nadler investigations. “Likewise, the most vicious and corrupt Mainstream Media that any president has ever had to endure - Yet the most successful first two years for any President. We are WINNING big, the envy of the WORLD, but just think what it could be?”

Trump’s PR campaign against Mueller has worked – to an extent. Mueller’s approval ratings have dropped somewhat (although so, too, have Trump’s) in CNN polling. In a December survey, 43% approved of the job Mueller was doing while 40% disapproved – a far tighter margin than the 48% approval/36% disapproval for Mueller from CNN polling earlier, in the fall of 2018.

That same poll showed some waning in the public’s desire for Trump to be impeached, as well. Fully 50% said they didn’t think Trump should be impeached and kicked out of office while 43% favored those moves. That was down from a September 2018 poll, when 47% of people supported the impeachment and removal of Trump. As CNN pollster Jennifer Agiesta noted, however, that 43% number in the December poll is a higher mark than any of Trump’s three most recent predecessors received when pollsters asked whether they should be impeached.)

Nadler, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (California) and every other Democratic leader will insist the investigations launched Monday are all about bringing accountability and oversight to the executive branch – a role for the legislative branch laid out in the Constitution.

But make no mistake: This is Democrats’ first major step toward the possibility of pursuing impeachment against the President. Impeachment is a process – in Congress, yes, but more so in convincing the public (and even wavering Republican elected officials) that this is not a partisan exercise but rather a necessary defense of our democratic ideals.

That sales effort started today. Who knows when it ends – and if it’s successful.